The demographic information is also important to remember. Even though we are used to understanding the Nephites and Lamanites as the two major peoples in the New World, we must remember that the definitions of those terms are collective for the multiple kin organizations attached to the larger political units (and indeed, that Lamanite frequently means little more than "not-Nephite"). Within the political Nephites, the lineal Mulekites were the more numerous.
The comparison used here is that there were "not so many" of the Nephites as the Mulekites. It is useful to recall the reasons for this population division, according to the way this commentary is reading the text. First, we should remember that the Lehites and Mulekites leave Jerusalem at roughly the same time. While this is a difference in time, that difference in and of itself is not sufficient to warrant a large population difference. While we do not know how many Mulekites left together, we may presume that it was likewise a single ship-full of people, and once again, there is little in the beginnings of the peoples that would account for the differences.
The possible reasons for the population distinctions between the descendents of Nephi and the descendents of Mulek are:
Historical: As noted in the chronological discussion following Mosiah 7:1, this reuniting of peoples
likely took place in 106-5 BC.
What complicates this picture even more is the Nephite description of the Lamanites (particularly in early periods) as hunter-gatherers and certainly uncivilized. The problem here is that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is known to be unable to sustain large populations. Large family sizes virtually require sedentary agriculture to provide sufficient food for the larger population. Peoples who rely upon hunting and gathering only tend to exist in small bands, not large cities.
The entire picture is simply impossible - unless we are speaking of populations augmented by those "others" who were in the New World previous to the arrival of the Lehites and Mulekites. Without the "others" in the picture, the descriptions of peoples and actions in the Book of Mormon would violate nearly all known principles of population size to mode of production.
A question that may be asked of this situation is why Mosiah chose to read the accounts of Limhi and later of Alma. We tend to forget in our world of information overload that the ancient world was typically bereft of both information and entertainment. The reading of these records was, for them, both an important means of communicating important information about the new people who were going to be their neighbors, but also a form of entertainment. The excuse to gather and to hear something new would have been tremendously entertaining as a diversion for the daily tasks of survival. In the absence of television, public orations were the news shows and perhaps even the soap operas of the day.
It is also quite interesting to contrast something that is not noted here with the similar gathering of the
people for Benjamin's great discourse. When Benjamin had to speak to the people, he found that he had to build
a tower (Mosiah 2:7). When Mosiah speaks to a presumably larger audience, he does not mention the building of a
tower. As was noted in the commentary on Benjamin's speech, it is possible that he was speaking in the temple courtyard
of a temple that was being built, but which had not yet been finished, thus the tower was necessary to lift him
higher than the congregation. In Mosiah's case, the "temple" would have been built. If we assume it to
have been a Mesoamerican style temple, it would easily have provided the elevation for such a public discourse.
Indeed, temple-pyramids were the focus of such public gatherings in Mesoamerica.
After finishing with the record of Limhi, Mosiah reads (or has read) the account of Alma. Since we have much of these records in abridged form, the oral reading of the information would have take longer than it takes us to read the same information. Nevertheless, it is not surprising either that the entire account was read, or that the people would stay to listen to it. As was noted above, this was an occasion for new information, and would be the equivalent of a blockbuster mini-series for the Zarahemlaites.
What we are not told is how long it took to finish the reading. While the text does not explicitly say so, it would not be surprising if this were an event that took place over at least two days. Perhaps one day was devoted to Limhi and the second to Alma. What we have here is Mormon's abridging of the event, and Mormon is characteristically short on such details.
Literary: These verses form a literary set, with specific structural parallels lying behind the specific texts. Each verse consists of a paired set of concepts; the people think on what they have heard, then react to it. This simple paired set is then set into a series of contrasts with a positive reaction and a sorrowful reaction. It would appear that that verse 7 sets up the verses with the "wonder and amazement." The rest of the verses define the nature of that "wonder and amazement."
Verses 8 and 9 create a contrasting set where there is a contemplation of different groups of people, and opposite reactions (one joyful, the other sorrowful). Verses 10 and 11 similarly contemplate different groups, and have opposite reactions (joyful thanks to God, pain for those not in God's favor). These two sets are also in parallel to each other.
This is clearly a constructed parallelism. It is also somewhat fancy for most of Mormon's style. It is possible that Mormon is sticking fairly close to a source here rather than creating this particular parallelism.
This verse demonstrates some of the detail that is missing from our account. This is the first time we learn of children of Amulon being among those who arrive in Zarahemla. Not only is this the first time we are made aware of them, Mormon neglects to tell us whether they arrived with Limhi or Alma. While this does not make much difference in an eternal scheme, it is still an interesting question.
If these children of Amulon came with Alma they would surely be the children of Amulon and the priest's union with the Lamanite women. Had any previous children been with Alma, surely that would have been a sufficiently significant reunion that it would have been mentioned - or at least those former children would have played some role of mediation, either lobbying for their fathers or for Alma whom they would have followed. We hear of none of this.
The second reason for seeing these children of Amulon and his brethren as the abandoned children fathered prior to the priests' escape is that children born of the union with the Lamanite women would have to be quite young, probably younger than a year, two at the most. Such children would certainly not be making informed decisions about their declared lineage.
Thus the probability is that these children of Amulon and his brethren were those who had already been rejected by their fathers. When they learn that their fathers had not only abandoned them and their mothers, but completely forsaken their former families to create new ones with the Lamanite women, the children may be seen as having sufficient motive to reject their lineal inheritance and adopt another.
Now we have the question of what they were actually doing. The Amulonites were possibly Nephite to begin with,
although they could have been descendents of the Zarahemla Mulekites. In any case, their allegiance to Noah would
have created some form of shift in dynastic interest. By adopting the Nephite lineage the children of Amulon not
only proclaim their current political alliance, they reject any claim they might have to rule based on their father's
positions. While this might appear to be a moot point since all of Limhi's people were being integrated into Nephite
society, the retention of potential claims upon rulership could have created divisiveness. By declaring themselves
of Nephi, they wholeheartedly accept that position, and reject any possible rulership based upon their father's
former or current positions.
It is in this context that we have "Nephite" here rather than Jacob's more general usage (Jacob 1:13). The context specifically deals with the ruling lineage of Nephi. This underscores the context of the children of Amulon's declaration to become Nephites, as well as that of the Zarahemla Mulekites. Both groups are declaring allegiance to the Nephi dynasty as represented by Mosiah I, Benjamin, and now Mosiah II. They are simultaneously giving up competing claims.
There is a world of information that Mormon does not tell us that we can surmise from this verse. In this verse we have the public introduction of Alma by Mosiah II. Modern readers of the Book of Mormon as so familiar with Alma that this does not seem surprising, but it should be. In contrast to Alma's public presentation and discourse, Limhi is apparently relegated to a secondary position. What has gone on before this discourse that leads to the next set of events, particularly the apparently rapid ascension of Alma as the religious leader of Zarahemla?
First, we must presume that the public events discussed here followed private meetings with Mosiah II. It would be a poor leader indeed who presented a full record of a people about whom he knew nothing. The private meetings would have been held separately, as the two groups arrived separately. Limhi's group arrived some time before Alma's. We can tell this because it was the army that was pursuing Limhi that stumbled upon Amulon and the other priests, and subsequently upon Alma. The establishment of the Lamanite rule in Helam (Alma's colony) probably became oppressive fairly quickly, but it still would have taken time, say a couple of months, before the situation was sufficiently unbearable that the flight was planned. Therefore we have another interesting facet of this particular public reading of documents. Limhi's group had been in Zarahemla for perhaps over two months (and perhaps several more) and there was no public reading of their documents. There is no listing of Limhi addressing Zarahemla as a group.
We therefore learn that this occasion is specifically about Alma. Limhi's record is read to give a background to Alma. Alma's record is read to provide the justification for the presentation of Alma to the people. Somewhere in private, Mosiah had learned of the true calling of Alma by the Lord, and recognized in Alma a powerful religious leader. As we will shortly see, Alma is so influential that not only does he succeed in restructuring the Nephite religious system, but also their political system. We cannot fully understand the dynamics between Mosiah and Alma, but clearly Alma becomes influential over Mosiah. Not long after his arrival, Alma is supplanting Mosiah as the religious leader of the people, and eventually supplants the entire structure that held Mosiah as the king of the people. Either this occurs with Mosiah's recognition of Alma's appointment from the Lord, or Mosiah might be seen as a weak and impressionable king. There is no indication of the latter, and so the former is the better assumption.
With this background we can return to the simple statement that Alma speaks at the behest of Mosiah. It is quite probable that Alma spoke on this occasion, but what is less clear in Mormon's synopsis is that this verse is not a transition for the specific public event, but rather the installation of Alma as the chief high priest. This is more clear in the next verse.
Here Mormon is describing a process, not a single event. With no clear transition, Mormon has moved from the public reading of records to the installation of Alma as an authorized preacher who moves among the people, teaching. Clearly Alma is moving from one group to another here, and this appears to indicate some time period after the formal gathering. It also suggests that it was still during this festival, as the "bodies" would be gathered only for such a festival. Therefore, what Mosiah has done is bring everyone together, and read to them as a whole. He then introduces (and probably explicitly approves) Alma and sends Alma to preach to them in groups. These groups are at least Nephites, Mulekites, and Limhites (based on Mosiah 25:4 and the specific address to Limhi's people which follows immediately).
It is possible that the preaching to these major political groups has more than a simple religious purpose. Remembering that religion and politics were intertwined in the ancient world, Alma is probably establishing his religious authority with the leadership of the individual groups. The multiple kin organizations of Mesoamerica typically had their own hierarchies of leadership, and Alma's mission is likely to have been to establish his credentials with those leaders. This is a preliminary to Alma's reformation of Nephite religious practices. That coming step would be impossible without widespread support from the kin group leaders.
The only specifics we have of Alma's teachings to the groups is that presented to Limhi and his followers. We cannot tell if this were the last or the first, but it is likely to have been the first. The Limhites are their family, perhaps even literally. They come from the same place, the same set of experiences. Therefore the empathy between the two groups is the highest. It will be the easiest for Alma to establish his innovations first among the Limhites, and then among the rest of the people. Perhaps Mormon gives us this one example rather than all of them because it was the first, and the rest were repetitive of these essentials. In any case, Alma goes to Limhi and his brethren and preaches to them the gospel as it has been revealed to Alma (by Abinadi and the Lord).
Social: This is an important verse for the development of Nephite religion. As a background, we must remember that Limhi is the son of Noah who was the son of Zeniff, who was a Nephite who had left the city of Nephi with Mosiah I and come to Zarahemla before leading his people back to the land of Nephi. Zeniff was a Nephite, and Mormon views him as a "good" Nephite, which for Mormon, means one who follows the commandments of God. While Noah departed from this way, Limhi was apparently still a faithful man.
All of this is a prelude to this sermon by Alma before Limhi's people. These were people who were of the Nephite religion, and while they may have temporarily adopted some of Noah's apostatate ideas, they had discarded them by the time of their flight to Zarahemla. Thus we have the situation where Nephites who had know of baptism since the time of Nephi I are now being baptized.
If we interpret this in modern terms, they are being rebaptized after their falling away. In the more ancient context, however, it is more probable that Alma is introducing baptism in a new light and new meaning. For Alma, baptism has (for the first time) become symbolic of a covenant rather than a cleansing. Rather than an individual action looking solely to the remission of sins on a personal level, the baptism of Alma also introduces the one baptized into a congregation. As noted before in this commentary, ancient religion was part of the entire community. Alma creates a method of separating elements of society into a different type of religious covenant that could be separate from the political covenant that binds them together. Alma creates "churches."
Social: Here is the most explicit correlation between Alma's baptism and the covenantal entry into a subset of society. To be very clear, Alma is preaching to Limhi's people who have been with Ammon for some length of time (perhaps a year?). This is a people who have repented of their ways, and certainly would have returned to a belief in God as understood and taught by Ammon. Thus Alma is not baptizing unbelievers, but believers.
While it is tempting to suppose that this is a baptism required to return the Limhites to the Nephite religion, this begs the question of Ammon and his possible authority to baptize. Clearly Ammon did not baptize. This ordinance waited for Alma, just as those who left Lehi-Nephi to go with Alma were baptized in the waters of Mormon.
The verse very clearly notes that "as many as he did baptize did belong to the church of God." Once again we see this conception of "church." For the first time we have an explicit demarcation in Nephite society between a congregation of God and those who were not.
Social: The explicit designation of Limhi's people as members of a "church" is not explicitly extended to the rest of the land of Zarahemla. This is a division of naming a belonging. Remember that Benjamin had already convenanted with his people to become "sons and daughters of God" (see Mosiah 5:7). That covenant was to provide the Zarahemlaites with a uniform base of belief, a covenantal means of leveling society (as discussed for Benjamin's discourse). A short generation has passed since that time, and no longer is there a presumption of unity. There is now an explicit structure separate from the rest of society, something that Benjamin's covenant did not do.
The separation of realm of influence now extends to Mosiah himself. Mosiah grants to Alma the power to ordain priests and teachers over each "church." Effectively this diminishes the regnal power of Mosiah, as he is now removed from an essential role in the religious institution of his society. While Mosiah would certainly be titularly the head of the "church," he was no longer the effective leader of it. That position passed to Alma.
As noted earlier, the influence of Alma is tremendous. With the implications of Alma's position in Nephite society, and the rapidity with which he acquired that position, we can only wonder at the personal charisma he must have had to so completely imbue Nephite society with his own ideas on religion and government (we will see the ideas on government appear in the future - at this point, it is his religious reforms that are most apparent).
Social: The reason for the institution of "church" is that there are too many people to "be governed by one teacher, neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly." One of the pressures that Alma's "church" responds to is the increase in population size. What is less clear from a modern perspective is how radical this change was. To understand what is happening here, which is nothing less than a religious revolution, we need to understand what Alma's "churches" were and how they contrasted to what was in place before Alma arrives on the scene.
We really have little to go on to define Alma's "churches." The one thing we should not do is base our understanding of Alma's "churches" on our own conceptions of "church." While this is the term used to translate what is going on, it may or may not accurately describe Alma's organization.
What do we know about Alma's "church" from the text alone?
How does this contrast with the pre-Alma situation?
What then was Alma's "church" not that we might presume that it was? At least in its inception, it was not a separate religious system among other religious systems. While Alma's reforms ultimately led to the possibility of seeing "church" as synonymous with "sect," in this earliest setting it is much better seen as closer to the original Greek ekklesia or gathering. Alma's "church" was a congregation physically separated from other similar congregations. The pragmatics of this ability to segregate into smaller groups would be the better mode of indoctrination of the congregation. When the Zarahemla population had grown too large for indoctrination en masse, the division into smaller congregations would allow for more effective teaching, and therefore perhaps better understanding, and (one would hope) better daily integration of the correct principles.
The essential unity
of belief is stressed. While the congregations were separate, they were all teaching the same religion. This was
assured by Alma's position as leader for all of the churches.
Certainly the churches taught much about living the will of God, and could not have been limited to sermons about repentance and faith any more than the modern church could long hold our interest is repentance and faith were the only topics. The important keys here are the introduction of the phrase with the negative (there was nothing preached…except…) and the formulaic use of "repentance and faith."
Repentance and faith are keywords that form the basic understanding of the Atoning Messiah. First is the individualized rather than communal nature of the religion of the Atoning Messiah, and secondly is the emphasis on the faith/repentance/atonement/forgiveness that forms the basis of Christian worship. This contrasts with the communal atonement of the law of Moses. While it may be argued that faith is always a principle of obedience to the divine, the elevation of the necessity of faith is a Christian principle rather than an Old Testament principle. The exhortations to faith in the New Testament find no firm counterpart in the Old Testament. Part of this is the shift in the emphasis from communal salvation to individual salvation. The second is the decrease in the emphasis of the efficacy of performance (law of Moses) as opposed to individualized righteousness (Christ's transformation of the law, as in the Sermon on the Mount).
All of this suggests that what is actually being said here, is that these churches preached the Atoning Messiah. This is consistent with what Alma learned from Abinadi and taught to his first congregation. Thus the statement deals with the type of gospel being taught, which is that expounded by Abinadi and other Nephite prophets concerning the Atoning Messiah.
Translation: This verse inserts the denominational meaning of "church" into the description of Alma's church, precisely the definition I have argued against. What is it doing here? This is Mormon's abridgement, and Mormon is from a much later period when the divisions in religions have played our very differently from what Alma envisioned when he established the churches/congregations. I see this as Mormon's conclusion based upon his later understanding of the conception, rather than a textually accurate depiction of Alma's churches.
Social: The first organization of congregations has seven separate "churches." Each of these would be a specific congregation with separate priests and leaders. Where were they? The text says that they were "in the land of Zarahemla." In Book of Mormon terms, this indicates the greater area attached to the city of Zarahemla rather than the city proper. Thus it is quite possible that the seven represented pre-defined communities structured by the current living arrangements. One congregation would be the city of Zarahemla and the immediately surrounding farming district. The other six were probably dependent towns or hamlets that were some distance from Zarahemla, but which looked to Zarahemla for political/religious leadership. Indeed, as we progress, we will see Alma traveling to different cities. These first churches were probably created along the city/town/hamlet boundaries.
The text indicates that those who wished to take upon themselves the name of Christ joined these churches. The taking of the name was Benjamin's covenant. While we do not know specifically of Alma also convenanted by the adoption of the name, it certainly makes sense to continue to promote the Benjamin covenant as well as Alma's baptism.
Translation: Note that we have in the text "the name of Christ, or of God." As has been indicated
multiple times before, the Nephite conception of their Atoning Messiah was that he was equivalent to Jehovah, and
therefore the same as their God. In this passage the original sense of the Book of Mormon is retained, without
the alteration that has been made to make the sense of it clearer to modern LDS who make distinctions that the
Nephites did not understand. Of course we also understand Jesus as incarnate Jehovah, so there is no real difference
in our understanding, only the problematic distinctions we make when we use God as an exclusive designator of the
Father rather than Jehovah.
Textual: There is no chapter break here in the 1830 edition. This verse is both an end and a setup for the next verse. While this verse does end part of the story of the establishment of churches, the net social effect of that change comes in the next verse. Whether or not Mormon explicitly understood the creation of the churches as the enabler for the social divisions that followed we cannot tell. The next chapter, however, focuses precisely on those social divisions. Thus this verse sets up the contrast between the initial outpouring of the Spirit, and the religious contentions that will follow.
|by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2000|