Friday, January 19, 2018

How a Mormon lawyer transformed archaeology in Mexico—and ended up losing his faith By Lizzie Wade

Link to article below, but copied to this blog to ensure access to the full article is retained for the duration of the existence of this blog.

How a Mormon lawyer transformed archaeology in Mexico—and ended up losing his faith

Thomas Stuart Ferguson lay in his hammock, certain that he had found the promised land. It had been raining for 5 hours in his camp in tropical Mexico on this late January evening in 1948, and his three campmates had long since drifted off to sleep. But Ferguson was vibrating with excitement. Eager to tell someone what he had seen, he dashed through the downpour to retrieve paper from his supply bag. Ensconced in his hammock's cocoon of mosquito netting, he clicked on his flashlight and began to write a letter home.

"We have discovered a very great city here in the heart of ‘Bountiful’ land," Ferguson wrote. According to the Book of Mormon, Bountiful was one of the first areas settled by the Nephites, ancient people who supposedly sailed from Israel to the Americas around 600 B.C.E. Centuries later, according to the scripture, Jesus appeared to the Nephites in the same region after his resurrection. Mormons like Ferguson were certain that these events had happened in the ancient Americas, but debates raged over exactly how their sacred lands mapped onto real-world geography. The Book of Mormon gave only scattered clues, speaking of a narrow isthmus, a river called Sidon, and lands to the north and south occupied by the Nephites and their enemies, the Lamanites.

After years of studying maps, Mormon scripture, and Spanish chronicles, Ferguson had concluded that the Book of Mormon took place around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of Mexico. He had come to the jungles of Campeche, northeast of the isthmus, to find proof.

As the group's local guide hacked a path through the undergrowth with his machete, that proof seemed to materialize before Ferguson's eyes. "We have explored four days and have found eight pyramids and many lesser structures and there are more at every turn," he wrote of the ruins he and his companions found on the western shore of Laguna de Términos. "Hundreds and possibly several thousand people must have lived here anciently. This site has never been explored before."

Ferguson, a lawyer by training, did go on to open an important new window on Mesoamerica's past. His quest eventually spurred expeditions that transformed Mesoamerican archaeology by unearthing traces of the region's earliest complex societies and exploring an unstudied area that turned out to be a crucial cultural crossroads. Even today, the institute he founded hums with research. But proof of Mormon beliefs eluded him. His mission led him further and further from his faith, eventually sapping him of religious conviction entirely. Ferguson placed his faith in the hands of science, not realizing they were the lion's jaws.

But that night, lying in his hammock listening to the rain and the occasional roar of a jaguar in the distance, Ferguson felt surer than ever that Mesoamerican civilizations had been founded by migrants from the Near East, just as his religion had taught him. Now, he thought, how would he convince the rest of the world?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) doesn't take an official position on where the events in the Book of Mormon occurred. But the faithful have been trying to figure it out practically since 1830, when church founder Joseph Smith published what he said was a divinely inspired account of the ancient Americas. Smith said an angel had led him to buried ancient golden plates, which he dug up and translated into the Book of Mormon. Smith's account of buried wonders was one of many in the United States at the time. As white settlers moved west, they encountered mounds filled with skeletons and artifacts, including beautiful pottery and ornaments. Newspapers, including those in Smith's hometown of Palmyra, New York, buzzed with speculation about who the "mound builders" were and how they came by their refined culture. Many settlers, blinded by racism, concluded that the mound builders—now known to be indigenous farming societies—were a lost people who had been exterminated by the violent ancestors of Native Americans. The Book of Mormon, with its saga of righteous, white Nephites and wicked, dark-skinned Lamanites, echoed these ideas.

The Book of Mormon also spoke of sprawling ancient cities, none of which had been identified in the United States. So in the 1840s, Mormons, including Smith himself, took notice of a U.S. explorer's best-selling accounts of visits to the ruins of Mayan cities in Mexico and Guatemala. In 1842, as editor of a Mormon newspaper, Smith published excerpts from a book about the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in Mexico, with the commentary: "Even the most credulous cannot doubt … these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites—and the mystery is solved."

But non-Mormons continued to doubt, and church authorities gradually retreated from explicit statements about Book of Mormon locations. By the 1930s, when Ferguson learned about Mesoamerican civilizations as an undergraduate at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, the matter had been largely ceded to amateurs who pored over maps and the Book of Mormon looking for correspondences.

Ferguson wasn't impressed by their efforts. "The interested and inquiring mind of the modern investigator is not satisfied with explanations which are vague, unsound, and illogical," he wrote in an article in a church magazine in 1941. By then he was a law student at UC Berkeley and intrigued by the idea of scientifically testing Smith's revelation. In a later letter, he wrote, "It is the only Church on the face of the earth which can be subjected to this kind of investigation and checking." And in another, to the LDS leadership, he declared, "The Book of Mormon is either fake or fact. If fake, the [ancient] cities described in it are non-existent. If fact—as we know it to be—the cities will be there."

Tall and handsome, with a lawyer's practiced authority, Ferguson trusted that the tools of science could persuade the world of the truth of the Book of Mormon. Soon after he finished college, he began searching for clues in colonial documents that recorded some of Latin America's indigenous traditions. One, written around 1554 by a group of K'iche' Mayan villagers in the Guatemala highlands, stated that their ancestors—"sons of Abraham and Jacob"—had sailed across a sea to reach their homeland. The K'iche' were defeated by Spanish conquistadors in 1524, and the biblical references were likely the product of contact with Catholic priests, who enthusiastically converted allies and former foes alike.

But Ferguson, who had grown up in a Mormon family in Idaho, eagerly took such syncretism as proof that Israelites had once settled in the Americas. He was also taken by the myth of Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent deity that some colonial priests described as a bearded white man. Ferguson concluded that he was Jesus, appearing in Bountiful after his resurrection just as the Book of Mormon recorded. His library research spurred his first hunt for archaeological evidence, in Campeche in 1948.

Ferguson realized, however, that colonial sources represented circumstantial evidence at best. Nor was it enough to find ruins of past civilizations in more or less the right location, as he had done in Campeche. To persuade and convert outsiders—a priority for Mormons—he sought objects mentioned in the Book of Mormon that archaeologists hadn't found in Mesoamerica: horses, wheeled chariots, steel swords, and, most important, Hebrew or Egyptian script. "The final test of our views of Book of Mormon geography will be archaeological work in the ground itself," Ferguson wrote in 1951 to his friend J. Willard Marriott, the wealthy founder of the Marriott hospitality chain and a powerful figure in the church.

Ferguson's idea that Mesoamerican societies were seeded by Western ones is widely recognized as racist today. But it fit right into the archaeological thinking of the time, when Mesoamerican archaeologists were consumed by the question of whether civilizations had evolved independently in the Americas or had roots elsewhere. "In the 1940s and 1950s, these were the questions everyone was investigating," says Robert Rosenswig, an archaeologist at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany.

Ferguson never received a formal education in archaeology. He practiced law to support his growing family—he eventually had five children—as well as his research. But in 1951, he recruited leading archaeologists to explore the origin of Mesoamerican civilization as part of a new institution, the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF). First on board was renowned researcher Alfred Kidder of Harvard University and the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. Kidder thought Mesoamerican civilizations had developed independently, but he and Ferguson had met at a museum in Guatemala City in 1946 and struck up a correspondence.

Kidder "is recognized as the best [Mesoamerican] archaeologist of the 20th century," says archaeologist John Clark of Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, who directed NWAF from 1987 to 2009. To get Kidder on the project, Clark says, "There's no question that Ferguson had to be some charismatic guy." Also recruited was Gordon Ekholm, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, who thought that Mesoamerican civilizations had their roots in advanced Asian cultures.

Their timing was good. Radiocarbon dating had just been invented, and Ferguson immediately recognized its potential for tracing the origins of Mesoamerican cultures. "This is the greatest development since the beginning of archaeology," he wrote to LDS leadership. "I am of the personal opinion that the Lord inspired [radiocarbon dating] that it might be used effectively in connection with the Book of Mormon."

Yet the first years of NWAF were a desperate scramble for money. Ferguson contributed thousands himself and raised funds from wealthy Mormons and the audiences of his lectures about Book of Mormon geography. In 1952, NWAF managed to send a handful of U.S. and Mexican archaeologists to survey the drainage basin of the Grijalva River in Tabasco and Chiapas, which Ferguson believed to be the Book of Mormon's River Sidon.

By this point, Ferguson had become more discerning about time periods than he had been in the jungles of Campeche. The ruins he found there were likely Classic or post-Classic Mayan, from between 250 C.E. and the Spanish conquest—much too late to be Mesoamerica's earliest civilization or the period mentioned in the Book of Mormon, believed to be about 2200 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. "We'll never solve pre-Maya origins by digging up more Mayas," Ferguson wrote to Kidder in April 1953. They needed Formative period sites, dating from about 2000 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., roughly matching the dates associated with the Book of Mormon.

In May 1953, Ferguson arrived in Chiapas to lend a hand. "He was rather alarmed that we hadn't found anything notable, because he felt he had to have something pretty spectacular to go and get more money for another year," recalls John Sorenson, then a master's student in archaeology at BYU (and a Mormon). To jump-start the search, Ferguson chartered a small plane, and he and Sorenson flew over the lush lowlands of central Chiapas. Fifteen kilometers southeast of the state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, they spotted the mounds and plazas of the ancient site of Chiapa de Corzo—which was then unknown to archaeologists. Later NWAF excavations dated the city to the Formative period.

Back on the ground, Ferguson and Sorenson set out by jeep for a 10-day survey to see what else they could find. "We'd go from site to site, town to town, asking ‘Are there any ruins around here?’" says Sorenson, who went on to receive a Ph.D. in anthropology from UC Los Angeles (UCLA) and is now a professor emeritus at BYU. Ferguson also asked locals whether they had found figurines of horses—unknown in ancient Mesoamerica—or sources of iron ore, which Sorenson found naïve. But his own archaeological training paid off, and at some sites he was able to identify the polished, monochrome pottery and hand-sculpted, irregular human figurines of the Formative period, so different from the intricate but standardized figurines the Classic Maya had made from molds. In all, Sorenson and Ferguson surveyed 22 sites on that journey and collected an astounding number of Formative artifacts. "In my humble opinion there is little or no question about it—they are Nephite making," Ferguson wrote to his church funders.

In 1954, LDS authorities granted NWAF $250,000 for 5 years of work. Intensive excavations at Chiapa de Corzo uncovered stone pyramids and tombs, and a wealth of pottery that impressed University of Pennsylvania anthropologist John Alden Mason, then working with NWAF. "Since pre-Classic pottery is not very common anywhere, and that of this region is entirely new, it is of course a very great scientific contribution," Mason wrote to Ferguson. Eventually, archaeologists reported that the site was settled around 1200 B.C.E., likely by people connected to the Olmec, an early civilization that dominated the gulf coast of Mexico from 1200 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E., centuries before the Classic Maya arose.

Then, in the early 1960s, NWAF archaeologists became the first to extensively excavate at Izapa, near the Chiapas coast and the Guatemalan border. They were drawn to the site in part because of a monument that apparently depicts a myth involving a tree; Ferguson's friend and founder of BYU's archaeology department, M. Wells Jakeman, argued that the carving shows visions received in a dream by the Mormon prophet Lehi. NWAF archaeologists, some of whom were Mormon, later soundly rebuffed that interpretation. But Izapa turned out to be a key site in the Soconusco, the Pacific coast region from which every Mesoamerican political power, from the Olmec in 1200 B.C.E. to the Aztec empire in the early 1500s C.E., sourced key luxury goods such as cacao and quetzal feathers. NWAF spearheaded excavations throughout this region. Pottery finds and dates from Izapa and elsewhere formed the basis of the ceramic chronologies for the Formative period that are still used by every archaeologist working in central and coastal Chiapas today.

"They were working in a part of Mesoamerica that was really unknown," says Michael Coe, an influential Mesoamerican archaeologist and professor emeritus at Yale University who, at the time, was surveying Formative sites just over the border in Guatemala. "NWAF put it on the map."

But even as NWAF grew in scientific stature, and was finally assured continued existence when BYU took it over in 1961, Ferguson was quietly becoming frustrated. The smoking gun he had been certain he would find—Egyptian or Hebrew script—proved elusive. He once had promised that archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon would be found within 10 years of NWAF starting excavations. But in 1966 he wrote, "My number one goal of establishing that Christ appeared in Mexico following the crucifixion will never be achieved until significant ancient manuscript discoveries are made. I hope it happens during our lifetimes."

When an ancient manuscript discovery did come, however, it was from a different quarter of the world—and it shook Ferguson's faith to its core.

In the summer of 1835, Joseph Smith had received a curious visitor in Kirtland, Ohio, then the headquarters of his burgeoning LDS church: a traveling showman, with four Egyptian mummies and some hieroglyphic texts in tow. The church bought the mummies and texts, and Smith said he translated the hieroglyphics, resulting in the Book of Abraham, which lays out Smith's cosmic vision of the afterlife. (Although Egyptian hieroglyphics had been deciphered in France in 1822 with the help of the Rosetta Stone, the news had barely reached U.S. shores.) As Smith and his followers moved around the Midwest, often fleeing angry mobs, they carried the mummies and papyri with them. After Smith's death at the hands of one of those mobs in Nauvoo, Illinois, they were sold by his family.

The fate of the mummies remains a mystery. But in 1966, a University of Utah professor examining artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City came across 11 Egyptian papyri with an 1856 certificate of sale signed by Smith's widow, Emma. The professor realized he was looking at the Book of Abraham papyri, and the documents were returned to the Mormon church.

Ferguson learned the news from a frontpage article in the newspaper Deseret News on 27 November 1967. Within days, he wrote to a friend in the church leadership, begging to know whether the papyri would be studied. Hearing that no studies were planned, Ferguson, as ever, took matters into his own hands. He received photos of the documents from the church and hired Egyptologists at UC Berkeley to translate them. He told the scholars nothing about the religious significance of the papyri. "He was conducting a clearly blind test," Clark says.

The results started coming in 6 weeks later. "I believe that all of these are spells from the Egyptian Book of the Dead," UC Berkeley Egyptologist Leonard Lesko wrote to Ferguson. Three other scholars independently gave Ferguson the same result: The texts were authentic ancient Egyptian, but represented one of the most common documents in that culture.

After decades of stressing the importance of the scientific method and using it to shore up his own faith, Ferguson now found himself at its mercy. "I must conclude that Joseph Smith had not the remotest skill in things Egyptian-hieroglyphics," he wrote to a fellow doubting Mormon in 1971. What's more, he wrote to another, "Right now I am inclined to think that all of those who claim to be ‘prophets’, including Moses, were without a means of communication with deity."

This doubt ultimately spread to Ferguson's archaeological quest. In 1975, he submitted a paper to a symposium about Book of Mormon geography outlining the failure of archaeologists to find Old World plants, animals, metals, and scripts in Mesoamerica. "The real implication of the paper," he wrote in a letter the following year, "is that you can't set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere—because it is fictional."

Although open about his doubts in his private letters, Ferguson didn't discuss his loss of faith with his family. He continued attending church, singing in the choir, and even giving blessings. "[Mormons] are so immersed in that culture … [that] to lose your faith, it's like you're being expelled from Eden," Coe says. "I felt sorry for him."

Ferguson continued to visit Mexico and from time to time stopped by NWAF headquarters in Chiapas, where he spoke frankly with Clark in 1983. "He resented that he spent so much time trying to prove the Book of Mormon. He said it was a fraud," remembers Clark, who is Mormon. The next month, Ferguson died of a heart attack while playing tennis. He was 67.

On a recent afternoon at NWAF headquarters here, scholars wander among buildings, sheltered patios, and a courtyard brimming with flowers and citrus trees. UCLA archaeologist Richard Lesure sorts through ceramics he excavated 27 years ago at Paso de la Amada on the Chiapas coast, home to Mesoamerica's first known ball court and elite residences. With NWAF support, Lesure has spent nearly 3 decades studying why mobile, egalitarian hunter-gatherers settled down here and created the oldest complex society in Mesoamerica around 1900 B.C.E., before even the Olmec rose to power.

Upstairs, Claudia García-Des Lauriers, an archaeologist at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, watches as an undergraduate student carefully positions an opossum-shaped ceramic whistle in the thin red laser beams of a 3D scanner. The researchers are creating a digital version of the ritual object, which García-Des Lauriers discovered at the Classic period site of Los Horcones on the Chiapas coast. Meanwhile, in the backyard, Clark leads an impromptu flint knapping lesson, using obsidian nodules strewn about the lawn.

"It's such a stimulating place to work," says Janine Gasco, an archaeologist at California State University in Dominguez Hills, who began working with NWAF in 1978. "It's been a force in my life."

In the years after Ferguson drifted away from the church and the foundation, NWAF continued to lead excavations, fund graduate students, publish an impressive amount of raw data, and store archaeological collections. Thanks to its work, a region that once seemed an archaeological backwater compared with the nearby Classic Mayan heartland in the Yucatán, Guatemala, and Belize has been revealed as the birthplace of Mesoamerican civilization and an economic and cultural hot spot, where people from all over the region crossed paths. "We wouldn't know anything about [central and coastal] Chiapas if it wasn't for [NWAF]," García-Des Lauriers says.

"Their work set the stage for everything I've done," says SUNY Albany's Rosenswig, who led recent excavations at Izapa to study the origins of urban life in Mesoamerica. When his graduate student Rebecca Mendelsohn, now a postdoc at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, excavated in Izapa in 2014, NWAF's original map of its mounds and monuments served as a vital field reference. "I've been surprised at how sound the work from the 1960s still is," she says.

NWAF is still run by BYU, which means its funding comes from the Mormon church and all its directors have been Mormons. But aside from a ban on coffee at headquarters, the archaeologists who work here barely notice its religious roots. "There aren't conversations about religion," Gasco says. "The archaeological community has a lot of respect for the work done here."

Ferguson had hoped the Chiapas coast would turn out to be a crossroads not just for Mesoamerica, but the world. But the more NWAF and its collaborators excavated and analyzed sites in the region, the more they confirmed that Mesoamerican civilization sprang up from entirely New World origins. For archaeologists today, that makes the field all the more exciting. "That's one of the most amazing things about studying Mesoamerican archaeology—it's one of a half-dozen or so cases of independent development of agriculture, development of complexity, development of cities," Rosenswig says.

It is hard to know whether Ferguson would have shared that excitement. For all his trust in science, his goal was to serve his faith. Some believing Mormons still read his books and trust his early, enthusiastic ideas about Mesoamerica. Others who came to doubt their religion also found hope in his story. His loss of faith gave them conviction and strength as they began their own journey down a difficult road, as shown by many who wrote him anguished letters in his later years.

But it is his scientific legacy, long unrecognized, that is perhaps most significant. "Facts are facts and truth is truth," Ferguson once wrote about the archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon that he was sure was about to be discovered in southern Mexico. His belief in that principle never wavered.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Historicity of the Book of Mormon by Dallin Oaks

Link to article below, but copied to this blog to ensure access to the full article is retained for the duration of the existence of this blog.

Dallin H. Oaks, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 237–48.

The Historicity of the Book of Mormon​

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

Elder Dallin H. Oaks was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this was published.

The issue of the historicity of the Book of Mormon highlights the difference between those who rely solely on scholarship and those who rely on revelation, faith, and scholarship. Those who rely solely on scholarship reject revelation and focus on a limited number of issues. But they can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon through their secular evidence and methods. On the other hand, those who rely on a combination of revelation, faith, and scholarship can see and understand all of the complex issues of the Book of Mormon record, and it is only through that combination that the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon can be answered. [1]

Some who term themselves believing Latter-day Saints are advocating that Latter-day Saints should “abandon claims that [the Book of Mormon] is a historical record of the ancient peoples of the Americas.” [2] They are promoting the feasibility of reading and using the Book of Mormon as nothing more than a pious fiction with some valuable contents. These practitioners of so-called “higher criticism” raise the question of whether the Book of Mormon, which our prophets have put forward as the preeminent scripture of this dispensation, is fact or fable—history or just a story.

The historicity—historical authenticity—of the Book of Mormon is an issue so fundamental that it rests first upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the first principle in this, as in all other matters. However, on the subject of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, there are many subsidiary issues that could each be the subject of a book. It is not my purpose to comment on any of these lesser issues, either those that are said to confirm the Book of Mormon or those that are said to disprove it.

Those lesser issues are, however, worthy of attention. Elder Neal A. Maxwell quoted Austin Farrer’s explanation: “Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.” [3]

In these remarks I will seek to use rational argument, but I will not rely on any proofs. I will approach the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon from the standpoint of faith and revelation. I maintain that the issue of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is basically a difference between those who rely exclusively on scholarship and those who rely on a combination of scholarship, faith, and revelation. Those who rely exclusively on scholarship reject revelation and fulfill Nephi’s prophecy that in the last days men “shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance” (2 Ne. 28:4). The practitioners of that approach typically focus on a limited number of issues, like geography, horses, angelic delivery, or nineteenth-century language patterns. They ignore or gloss over the incredible complexity of the Book of Mormon record. Those who rely on scholarship, faith, and revelation are willing to look at the entire spectrum of issues—the content as well as the vocabulary, the revelation as well as the excavation.

Speaking for a moment as one whose profession is advocacy, I suggest that if one is willing to acknowledge the importance of faith and the reality of a realm beyond human understanding, the case for the Book of Mormon is the stronger case to argue. The case against the historicity of the Book of Mormon has to prove a negative. You do not prove a negative by prevailing on one debater’s point or by establishing some subsidiary arguments.

For me, this obvious insight goes back over forty years to the first class I took on the Book of Mormon at Brigham Young University. The class was titled, somewhat boldly, the “Archaeology of the Book of Mormon.” In retrospect, I think it should have been labelled something like “An Anthropologist Looks at a Few Subjects of Interest to Readers of the Book of Mormon.” Here I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time I had assumed that it was. If that were the claim of the Book of Mormon, any piece of historical, archaeological, or linguistic evidence to the contrary would weigh in against the Book of Mormon, and those who rely exclusively on scholarship would have a promising position to argue.

In contrast, if the Book of Mormon only purports to be an account of a few peoples who inhabited a portion of the Americas during a few millennia in the past, the burden of argument changes drastically. It is no longer a question of all versus none; it is a question of some versus none. In other words, in the circumstance I describe, the opponents of historicity must prove that the Book of Mormon has no historical validity for any peoples who lived in the Americas in a particular time frame, a notoriously difficult exercise. One does not prevail on that proposition by proving that a particular Eskimo culture represents migrations from Asia. The opponents of the historicity of the Book of Mormon must prove that the people whose religious life it records did not live anywhere in the Americas.

Another way of explaining the strength of the positive position on the historicity of the Book of Mormon is to point out that we who are its proponents are content with a standoff on this question. Honest investigators will conclude that there are so many evidences that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that they cannot confidently resolve the question against its authenticity, despite some unanswered questions that seem to support the negative determination. In that circumstance, the proponents of the Book of Mormon can settle for a draw or a hung jury on the question of historicity and take a continuance until the controversy can be retried in another forum.

In fact, it is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Its authenticity depends, as it says, on a witness of the Holy Spirit. Our side will settle for a draw, but those who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon cannot settle for a draw. They must try to disprove its historicity—or they seem to feel a necessity to do this—and in this they are unsuccessful because even the secular evidence, viewed in its entirety, is too complex for that.

Hugh Nibley made a related point when he wrote: “The first rule of historical criticism in dealing with the Book of Mormon or any other ancient text is, never oversimplify. For all its simple and straightforward narrative style, this history is packed as few others are with a staggering wealth of detail that completely escapes the casual reader. . . . Only laziness and vanity lead the student to the early conviction that he has the final answers on what the Book of Mormon contains.” [4] Parenthetically, I would cite as an illustration of this point the linguistic, cultural, and writing matters described in support of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon in Orson Scott Card’s persuasive essay, “The Book of Mormon—Artifact or Artifice?” [5]

I admire those scholars for whom scholarship does not exclude faith and revelation. It is part of my faith and experience that the Creator expects us to use the powers of reasoning He has placed within us, and that He also expects us to exercise our divine gift of faith and to cultivate our capacity to be taught by divine revelation. But these things do not come without seeking. Those who utilize scholarship and disparage faith and revelation should ponder the Savior’s question: “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” (John 5:44).

God invites us to reason with Him, but I find it significant that the reasoning to which God invites us is tied to spiritual realities and maturity rather than to scholarly findings or credentials. In modern revelation the Lord has spoken of reasoning with His people (D&C 45:10, 15; 50:10–12; 61:13; see also Isa. 1:18). It is significant that all of these revelations were addressed to persons who had already entered into covenants with the Lord—to the elders of Israel and to the members of his restored Church.

In the first of these revelations, the Lord said that He had sent His everlasting covenant into the world to be a light to the world, a standard for his people: “Wherefore, come ye unto it,” he said, “and with him that cometh I will reason as with men in days of old, and I will show unto you my strong reasoning” (D&C 45:10). Thus, this divine offer to reason was addressed to those who had shown faith in God, who had repented of their sins, who had made sacred covenants with the Lord in the waters of baptism, and who had received the Holy Ghost, which testifies of the Father and the Son and leads us into truth. This was the group to whom the Lord offered (and offers) to enlarge their understanding by reason and revelation.

Some Latter-day Saint critics who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon seek to make their proposed approach persuasive to Latter-day Saints by praising or affirming the value of some of the content of the book. Those who take this approach assume the significant burden of explaining how they can praise the contents of a book they have dismissed as a fable. I have never been able to understand the similar approach in reference to the divinity of the Savior. As we know, some scholars and some ministers proclaim Him to be a great teacher and then have to explain how the one who gave such sublime teachings could proclaim himself (falsely they say) to be the Son of God who would be resurrected from the dead.

The new-style critics have the same problem with the Book of Mormon. For example, we might affirm the value of the teachings recorded in the name of a man named Moroni, but if these teachings have value, how do we explain these statements also attributed to this man? “And if there be faults [in this record] they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire” (Morm. 8:17). “And I exhort you to remember these things; for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?” (Moro. 10:27).

There is something strange about accepting the moral or religious content of a book while rejecting the truthfulness of its authors’ declarations, predictions, and statements. This approach not only rejects the concepts of faith and revelation that the Book of Mormon explains and advocates, but it is also not even good scholarship.

Here I cannot resist recalling the words of a valued colleague and friend, now deceased. This famous law professor told a first-year class at the University of Chicago Law School that along with all else, a lawyer must also be a scholar. He continued: “That this has its delights will be recalled to you by the words of the old Jewish scholar: ‘Garbage is garbage; but the history of garbage—that’s scholarship.”‘ [6] This charming illustration reminds us that scholarship can take what is mundane and make it sublime. So with the history of garbage. But scholarship, so-called, can also take what is sublime and make it mundane. Thus, my friend could have illustrated his point by saying, “Miracles are just a fable, but the history of miracles, that’s scholarship.” So with the Book of Mormon. Those who only respect this book as an object of scholarship have a very different perspective than those who revere it as the revealed word of God.

Scholarship and physical proofs are worldly values. I understand their value, and I have had some experience in using them. Such techniques speak to many after the manner of their understanding. But there are other methods and values too, and we must not be so committed to scholarship that we close our eyes and ears and hearts to what cannot be demonstrated by scholarship or defended according to physical proofs and intellectual reasoning.

To cite another illustration, history—even Church history—is not reducible to economics or geography or sociology, though each of these disciplines has something to teach on the subject. On the subject of history, President Gordon B. Hinckley commented on the critics who cull out demeaning and belittling information about some of our forbears: “We recognize that our forebears were human. They doubtless made mistakes . . .. But the mistakes were minor, when compared with the marvelous work which they accomplished. To highlight the mistakes and gloss over the greater good is to draw a caricature. Caricatures are amusing, but they are often ugly and dishonest. A man may have a blemish on his cheek and still have a face of beauty and strength, but if the blemish is emphasized unduly in relation to his other features, the portrait is lacking in integrity. . . . I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts in their proper context, with emphasis on those elements which explain the great growth and power of this organization.” [7]

In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, we read how Jesus taught Peter the important contrast between acting upon the witness of the Spirit and acting upon his own reasoning in reliance upon the ways of the world. “When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. . . . Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ” (Matt. 16:13–17, 20).

That was the Lord’s teaching on the value of revelation by the Spirit (“Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona”). In the next three verses of this same chapter of Matthew we have the Savior’s blunt teaching on the contrasting value of this same apostle’s reasoning by worldly values: “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matt. 16:21–23).

I suggest that we do the same thing and deserve the same rebuke as Peter whenever we subordinate a witness of the Spirit (“the things that be of God”) to the work of scholars or the product of our own reasoning by worldly values (the things that “be of men”).

Human reasoning cannot place limits on God or dilute the force of divine commandments or revelations. Persons who allow this to happen identify themselves with the unbelieving Nephites who rejected the testimony of the prophet Samuel. The Book of Mormon says, “They began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying: That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come” (Hel. 16:17–18). Persons who practice that kind of “reasoning” deny themselves the choice experience someone has described as our heart telling us things that our mind does not know. [8]

Sadly, some Latter-day Saints ridicule others for their reliance on revelation. Such ridicule tends to come from those whose scholarly credentials are high and whose spiritual credentials are low.

The Book of Mormon’s major significance is its witness of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God the Eternal Father who redeems and saves us from death and sin. If an account stands as a preeminent witness of Jesus Christ, how can it possibly make no difference whether the account is fact or fable—whether the persons really lived who prophesied of Christ and gave eye witnesses of His appearances to them?

Professor John W. Welch pointed out to me that this new wave of antihistoricism “may be a new kid on the block in Salt Lake City, but it has been around in a lot of other Christian neighborhoods for several decades.” Indeed! The argument that it makes no difference whether the Book of Mormon is fact or fable is surely a sibling to the argument that it makes no difference whether Jesus Christ ever lived. As we know, there are many so-called Christian teachers who espouse the teachings and deny the teacher. Beyond that, there are those who even deny the existence or the knowability of God. Their counterparts in Mormondom embrace some of the teachings of the Book of Mormon but deny its historicity.

Recently, as I was scanning the magazine Chronicles, published by the Rockford Institute, I was stopped by the title of a book review, “Who Needs the Historical Jesus?” [9] and by the formidable reputation of its author. Jacob Neusner, who is Dr., Rabbi, and Professor, reviewed two books whose titles both include the phrase “the historical Jesus.” His comments are persuasive on the subject of historicity in general.

Neusner praises these two books, one as “an intensively powerful and poetic book . . . by a great writer who is also an original and weighty scholar” [10] and the other as “a masterpiece of scholarship.” [11] But notwithstanding his tributes to their technique, Neusner forthrightly challenges the appropriateness of the effort the authors have undertaken. Their effort, typical in today’s scholarly world, was to use a skeptical reading of the scriptures rather than a believing one, to present a historical study that would “distinguish fact from fiction, myth or legend from authentic event.” In doing so, their “skeptical reading of the Gospels” [12] caused them to assume that the Jesus Christ of the Gospels was not the Jesus who actually lived. It also caused them to assume that historians can know the difference.

I now quote Neusner’s conclusions:

No historical work explains itself so disingenuously as does work on the historical Jesus: from beginning, middle, to end, the issue is theological. [13] Surely no question bears more profound theological implications for Christians than what the person they believe to be the incarnate God really, actually, truly said and did here on earth. But historical method, which knows nothing of the supernatural and looks upon miracles with unreserved stupefaction, presumes to answer them. [14]

But statements (historical or otherwise) about the founders of religions present a truth of a different kind. Such statements not only bear weightier implications, but they appeal to sources distinct from the kind that record what George Washington did on a certain day in 1775. They are based upon revelation, not mere information; they claim, and those who value them believe, that they originate in God’s revelation or inspiration. Asking the Gospels to give historical rather than gospel truth confuses theological truth with historical fact, diminishing them to the measurements of this world, treating Jesus as precisely the opposite of what Christianity has always known Him to be, which is unique.

When we speak of “the historical Jesus,” therefore, we dissect a sacred subject with a secular scalpel, and in the confusion of categories of truth the patient dies on the operating table; the surgeons forget why they made their cut; they remove the heart and neglect to put it back. The statement “One and one are two,” or “The Constitutional Convention met in 1787,” is simply not of the same order as “Moses received the Torah at Sinai” or “Jesus Christ is Son of God.”

What historical evidence can tell us whether someone really rose from the dead, or what God said to the prophet on Sinai? I cannot identify a historical method equal to the work of verifying the claim that God’s Son was born to a virgin girl. And how can historians accustomed to explaining the causes of the Civil War speak of miracles, or men rising from the dead, and of other matters of broad belief? Historians working with miracle stories turn out something that is either paraphrastic of the faith, indifferent to it, or merely silly. In their work we have nothing other than theology masquerading as “critical history.” If I were a Christian, I would ask why the crown of science has now to be placed upon the head of a Jesus reduced to this-worldly dimensions, adding that here is just another crown of thorns. In my own view as a rabbi, I say only that these books are simply and monumentally irrelevant. [15]

Please excuse me for burdening you with that long quote, but I hope you will agree with my conclusion that what the rabbi/professor said about the historical Jesus is just as appropriate and persuasive on the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. [16]

To put the matter briefly, a scholarly expert is a specialist in a particular discipline. By definition, he knows everything or almost everything about a very narrow field of human experience. To think that he can tell us something about other scholarly disciplines, let alone about God’s purposes and the eternal scheme of things, is naive at best.

Good scholars understand the limitations of their own fields, and their conclusions are carefully limited to the areas of their expertise. In connection with this, I remember the reported observation of an old lawyer. As they traveled through a pastoral setting with cows grazing on green meadows, an acquaintance said, “Look at those spotted cows.” The cautious lawyer observed carefully and conceded, “Yes, those cows are spotted, at least on this side.” I wish that all of the critics of the Book of Mormon, including those who feel compelled to question its historicity, were even half that cautious about their “scholarly” conclusions.

In this message I have offered some thoughts on matters relating to the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

1. On this subject, as on so many others involving our faith and theology, it is important to rely on faith and revelation as well as scholarship.

2. I am convinced that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

3. Those who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon have the difficult task of trying to prove a negative. They also have the awkward duty of explaining how they can dismiss the Book of Mormon as a fable while still praising some of its contents.

4. We know from the Bible that Jesus taught His apostles that in the important matter of His own identity and mission they were “blessed” for relying on the witness of revelation (“the things that be of God”), and it is offensive to Him for them to act upon worldly values and reasoning (“the things . . . that be of men”) (Matt. 16:23).

5. Those scholars who rely on faith and revelation as well as scholarship, and who assume the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, must endure ridicule from those who disdain these things of God.

6. I have also illustrated that not all scholars disdain the value of religious belief and the legitimacy of the supernatural when applied to theological truth. Some even criticize the “intellectual provincialism” of those who apply the methods of historical criticism to the Book of Mormon.

I testify of Jesus Christ, whom we serve, whose Church this is. I invoke his blessings upon you, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[1] This paper was originally presented 29 October 1993 at the Annual Dinner of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah, and was available as a typescript from F.A.R.M.S. The valuable suggestions of Professor John W. Welch, Brigham Young University Law School, are gratefully acknowledged.

[2] Anthony A. Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough: The Book of Mormon as Nineteenth-Century Scripture,” New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Exploration in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 1.

[3] Austin Fairer, “The Christian Apologist,” in Light on C. S. Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 26.

[4] Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 5, The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 237.

[5] Orson Scott Card, A Storyteller in Zion: Essays and Speeches by Orson Scott Card (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993), 13–45.

[6] Paul M. Bator, “Talk to the First Year Class,” The Law School Record 35 (spring 1989): 7.

[7] Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, October 1983, 68.

[8] Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 92.

[9] Jacob Neusner, “Who Needs the Historical Jesus?” review of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, by John P. Meier and The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, by John Dominic Crossan, published in Chronicles, July 1993, 32–34.

[10] Neusner, “Who Needs the Historical Jesus?” 34.

[11] Neusner, “Who Needs the Historical Jesus?” 33.

[12] Neusner, “Who Needs the Historical Jesus?” 32.

[13] Neusner, “Who Needs the Historical Jesus?” 34.

[14] Neusner, “Who Needs the Historical Jesus?”32.

[15] Neusner, “Who Needs the Historical Jesus?” 32–33.

[16] Neusner apparently agrees. See his letter to the editor in Sunstone, July 1993, 7–8. 248

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Joseph's Seer Stone

The LDS Church published the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon this week.  Along with that printing, the Church revealed pictures of Joseph Smith's seer stone.

There has been much discussion on-line about this seer stone.

Along with releasing pictures of this stone, the Church has pre-published an October 2015 Ensign article called "Joseph the Seer" in the which they discuss the objects Joseph used to "translate" the Book of Mormon.  They article doesn't say anything significantly different than what Bushman and the essay have already stated.  Except there is one curious point to make about this Ensign article: artwork.

Along with many others, I have asked the question why we have not seen any (Church sponsored and in Church publications) artwork depicting Joseph putting the stone and his face in a hat; illustrating the most common way he "translated" the Book of Mormon.  It is not for lack of available artwork.

In the same article ("Joseph the Seer"), the authors seem to begin to answer the question, but then they don't.  The article states, "Over the years, artists have sought to portray the Book of Mormon translation, showing the participants in many settings and poses with different material objects.  Each artistic interpretation is based upon the artist's own views, research and imagination, sometimes aided by input and direction from others."  The article then shows four pieces of artwork, none of which show Joseph with his face in a hat.  And so the question remains.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Gospel Topic: Book of Mormon and DNA Studies

The Church recently posted another new Gospel Topic.  This one is entitled Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.  It is quite lengthy, but a very fascinating read.

The section I found most fascinating was "The Ancestors of the American Indians."  In this section, we basically read that there is a concession that other people lived in the Americas before Lehi and his family arrived and that they perhaps intermingled with the people already living there.

I remember in my Book of Mormon class at BYU, bringing up the idea that there were other people living with the Nephites.  I could not imagine how Jacob (Lehi's son) could be preaching to the people about their concubines and many wives.  How could there be so many people that there were men marrying multiple women.  My professor (Ludlow) basically shot down this idea when I raised the point that the Nephites were living among other people who had already settled the land.  It's good to see an official essay acknowledge this point.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gospel Topic: Book of Mormon Translation

The Church just published a new Gospel Topic called Book of Mormon Translation.  This is the latest in a series of gospel topics addressing less-known aspects about the Church.

I've previously written about the translation process of the Book of Mormon when I reviewed Rough Stone Rolling.  I'll simply copy that review below.

The traditional story of how the Book of Mormon was translated is Joseph putting on the breastplate and Urim and Thummim, casting his gaze onto the plates and seeing the reformed Egyptian turn into English words.  Furthermore, it would seem that Joseph just knew to "put on" the breastplate and spectacles and begin the translation - but this was not so.  As Bushman states on page 63, "Developing a method took time."

The whole process is not really known.  But we do know that he copied characters; had them sent to scholars to translate and to verify.  There is also this passage from Bushman: "Neither Joseph nor Oliver explained how translation worked, but Joseph did not pretend to look at the 'reformed Egyptian' words, the language on the plates, according to the book's own description.  The plates lay covered on the table, while Joseph's head was in a hat looking at the seerstone which by this time had replaced the interpreters.  The varying explanations of the perplexing process fall roughly into two categories: composition and transcription.  The first holds that Joseph was the author of the book.  He composed it out of knowledge and imaginings collected in his own mind, perhaps aided by inspiration.  He had stuffed his head with ideas for sermons, Christian doctrine, biblical language, multiple characters, stories of adventure, social criticism, theories of Indian origins, ideas about Mesoamerican civilization, and many other matters.  During translation, he composed it all into a narrative dictated over the space of three months in Harmony and Fayette."

Bushman describes the 'composition' method, but I'm not going to quote that here.  I will quote what he wrote about 'transcription.'

"The transcription theory has Joseph Smith 'seeing' the Book of Mormon text in the seerstone or the Urim and Thummim.  He saw the words in the stone as he had seen lost objects or treasure and dictated them to his secretary.  The eyewitnesses who described translation, Joseph Knight, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, who was in the house during the last weeks of translation, understood translation as transcription.  Referring to the seerstone as a Urim and Thummim, Knight said: 'Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters.  Then he would tell the writer and he would write it.  Then that would go away the next sentance would Come and so on.'"

"Joseph himself said almost nothing about his method but implied transcription when he said that 'the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book.'  Close scrutiny of the original manuscript (by a believing scholar) seems to support transcription.  Judging from the way Cowdery wrote down the words, Joseph saw twenty to thirty words at a time, dictated them, and then waited for the next twenty to appear.  Difficult names (Zenoch, Amalickiah) were spelled out.  By any measure, transcription was a miraculous process, calling for a huge leap of faith to believe, yet, paradoxically, it is more in harmony with the young Joseph of the historical record than is composition.  Transcription theory gives us a Joseph with a miraculous gift that evolved naturally out of his earlier treasure-seeking.  The boy who gazed into stones and saw treasure grew up to become a translator who looked into a stone and saw words."

A word about the seerstone (or seer stone as found on  The image of Joseph putting his head into his hat to see his seerstone is not a common image in the Church.  I've never even seen an image of Joseph using the Urim & Thummim and breastplate.  Rather, the image that does come to mind is Joseph gazing on the plates (sans seerstone or U&T) while Oliver sits across the table writing.  But the fact that a stone Joseph found in 1822 was being used in the translation of the Book of Mormon is an interesting one.  Bushman talks about this in his book - the theory is that Joseph learned of the Gospel in the context of the treasure and magic culture that existed at that time.

Comparing my childhood/teenage view of the translation
of the Book of Mormon with this new (to me), more accurate description of the translation is interesting. In my mind, the two views are vastly different.  My childhood view is simple and very clean.  The reality view is more enticing.  But my fundamental question is this: why, as a child, did I have to be taught the clean version of the story?  If anything, it would have been far easier to believe as a child, the story of Joseph finding a stone while digging a well and then using that stone to translate the Book of Mormon.  Perhaps the "clean" version is told so as not to distract the learner with the idea that there are seerstones just laying around the earth - rather the focus should be on the work of God.  That's just a thought.  But to finish that thought - why would the Church jump to that conclusion?  Is it because others found a seerstone too?  And to prevent others from from finding a using a seerstone (a true one or a false one)?  I don't know.  But the fact remains - the version I was taught was not the whole truth and this is not an isolated example - it's a pattern.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

3 Nephi 4 & 5

Mountain Bandit Culture

This past week (April  14-20) was one of the most tragic weeks in recent memory.  I think I speak for most United States citizens when I saw we are exhausted from all that has gone on this week.  Monday, April 15 was the Boston Marathon.  Two explosions from home-made bombs (ball-bearings and nails with explosives inside a pressure cooker) went off at the close of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and dismembering and injuring about 200.  The search for the suspects began.  Because the bombings were in a major city with lots of people, pictures of the events were captured by many, many people.  Soon the police and FBI knew who they should be looking for.  Then the manhunt began Thursday April 18 ... it turns out the suspects were two Chechen refugees who have been in the US for over 10 years.  Another person (an MIT police officer) was killed Thursday night / early Friday morning.  The two were pursued and cornered and the older of the two brothers was killed.  The younger of the two continued to flee.  All day Friday, the entire city of Boston was on lock-down while law enforcement searched.  They finally found him hiding in a land-parked boat in someone's back-yard.  Thankfully they were able to capture him alive so as to be able to question him to see if he and his brother had outside help.

To add to the point about this being such a tragic week ... on Wednesday April 17, a fertilizer plant exploded in the city of West, Texas.  At this time, 14 people have been confirmed dead, but that number may go up significantly.  The nation is trying to recover its collective strength after this week.

Anyway - with that background of this week, there were lots of blog posts about the bombings.  But one post really caught my attention due to the fact that I've blogged about how today's terrorists are modern-day Gadianton Robbers.

One of the hallmarks of the Gadianton Robbers is that they hide in the hills and wilderness.  3 Nephi 4:1 reads: "And it came to pass that in the latter end of the eighteenth year those armies of robbers had prepared for battle, and began to come down and to sally forth from the hills, and out of the mountains, and the wilderness, and their strongholds, and their secret places, and began to take possession of the lands, both which were in the land south and which were in the land north, and began to take possession of all the lands which had been deserted by the Nephites, and the cities which had been left desolate."

Then there is this blog post "NYT: Let's not forget the Real Victims: Chechen refugees" in which the author cites this NY Time article (Beslan Meets Columbine) and discusses the restlessness and "mountain bandit culture" of Chechens.  Specifically he says, "All over the world, it's common for people who live in highly defensible positions, such as mountains, to raid their neighbors, then beat it back to their geographically complex and daunting home turf."  He goes on to note several mountain bandit cultures.

April 20, 2013

Summary of the Great Battle

To summarize the last few chapters on a timeline, we can read in chapter 2 verse 11 that the GR had become numerous and were killing a lot of people. This was in the year 13 (since the sign of Christ's birth). In year 16, Lachoneus is governor of the Nephites and the GR leader is Giddianhi. Giddianhi sends an epistle to Lachoneus and demands that the Nephites surrender themselves and their land to the GR. Lachoneus does not surrender, but exhorts the people to repentance. He also instructs the people, in year 17, to gather together in one place. In year 18, the GR begin to come out of their hiding places. In year 19, the final battle begins (chapter 4 verse 5), and this is where I begin with this commentary.

The Nephites have enough food to last seven years. They are all gathered together in one place and their armies are placed around the body of people. When the GR finally come to the battle, they are dressed so as to appear frightful to the Nephites. The Nephites prayed earnestly when they saw the GR armies advancing. The Nephites had truly been humbled and had repented of their sins. The Lord was with them. The battle that ensued was the greatest battle since the days of Lehi – which means it was the greatest battle ever as far as the number of people who were killed. The Nephites beat them and then pursued the GR. Giddianhi was killed.

Next, the GR laid siege, but it will prove fruitless. Finally, the GR decide to head to the northern parts of the land. The Nephites are aware of the GR's plans and they cut them off. The new GR leader was Zemnarihah. When the Nephites captured Zemnarihah and the GR, they took Zemnarihah and hung him to death and then cut the tree. It was a great victory for the Nephites. Once again, we learn the valuable lesson that when a people put their trust in God, God will deliver them – God will fight and win their battles.

Gadianton Robbers Taught the Gospel

The people were very happy that the GR were finally defeated. They took the remainder of the GR and tossed them in prison and taught them the gospel (3 Nephi 5:4). If they repented, they were set free. If they did not repent, they were executed. Finally, the majority of the people were living in righteousness.

Mormon's Commentary

The rest of chapter 5 is comprised of comments by Mormon. He tells us that he is named after the place of Mormon where Alma the Sr. taught the people and baptized them. I find it interesting to note what he says in verse 12. He writes, "… Alma did establish the church among the people, yea the first church which was established among them after their transgression." I imagine that he was referring to the transgression of the Nephites in the Land of Nephi under the kingship of King Noah. But it is also interesting to note that when Alma and his followers rejoined the Nephites in Zarahemla and King Mosiah, Alma was appointed head of the church! Wouldn't there have been a church leader already established in Zarahemla? Perhaps King Mosiah was also the church leader and delegated these responsibilities to Alma knowing that shortly thereafter, he (King Mosiah) would be dissolving the line of Kings and establishing a council of judges. Of course when this happened, Alma was chosen to be the Chief Judge too. We may never know all the motives behind the decisions made, but at least this much we know – that Alma the Senior was a great prophet and man. His faith was incredible as he changed his life (and the history of the Nephites for that matter!) after listening to the mighty words of Abinadi.

The other comments Mormon made were regarding the gathering of Israel. I don't have anything to say at this time regarding those comments.

August 22, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2012

4 Nephi & Mormon 1-6

September 13, 2007 - Original Post

A Timeline

For the books of 4 Nephi and Mormon, I will give a timeline summary since there is so much that goes on over many years. Also, there isn’t much in doctrine in these chapters so a summary is in order.

AD 34 – The Disciples of Christ have formed a church of Christ in all the lands.
AD 36 – All the people in all the lands have been converted. Zion is established and the people live the law of consecration.
AD 37 - The Disciples perform all kinds of miracles by healing the sick.
AD 38-59 - Cities are rebuilt, the people wax strong and multiply, no contention in the land.
AD 100 - All the Disciples have died except the Three. Others ordained in their stead.
AD 110 - The first generation passes away. Nephi gives plates to his son Amos.
AD 194 - Amos gives plates to his son Amos. Amos the Elder dies.
AD 200 - The second generation passes away.
AD 201 – Pride begins to enter the hearts of some. Costly apparel and jewelry and the fine things of the world are the people’s desires. The law of consecrations ceases. They begin to deny the true church of Christ.
AD 210 – Many different churches are established in the land. These churches defile the true gospel of Christ. False churches persecute the true church. False churches seek to kill the disciples of Christ.
AD 230 – A great division occurs among the people. “-ites" re-enter into the culture. The people of God are called the Nephites, while those who do not belong to the true church of God are called Lamanites, Lemuelites, Zoramites, etc.
AD 240 – The wicked begin to outnumber the righteous.
AD 260 – The secret oaths and combinations of Gadianton re-enter among the people. Even the Nephites begin to be proud in their hearts because of their riches.
AD 305 - Amos gives plates to his brother Ammaron. Amos the Younger dies.
AD 300 – Gadianton Robbers are widespread. Both the Nephites and Lamanites are wicked.
320 AD – Ammaron hides all the sacred records. The Book of 4 Nephi ends.

About AD 320 - Ammaron instructs Mormon (age 10) to take the plates when he turns 24. He is to write all that he has seen.
About AD 322 – Mormon, age 11, is taken by his father (also named Mormon) to the land of Zarahemla. War breaks out between the Nephites and Lamanites. Wickedness prevails among the people. The Lord takes away His disciples. Miracles cease.
About AD 326 – Mormon is visited by the Lord Jesus Christ. The land is cursed and people lose what they hide. Mormon is appointed head of the Nephite army at age 16.
AD 327 – Lamanite army advances on the Nephites.
AD 330 – Nephites successfully defend themselves with 42,000 against an army of 44,000. The Nephites do not have godly sorrow for their sins. Their sorrow is the sorrow of the damned. The day of grace has passed for them.
AD 345 – Nephites flee before Lamanites to the city of Jashon which is near the land where the records are. Mormon obtains records and makes a full account of the wickedness of the people. Nephites are continually pursued and hunted.
AD 346 – Nephites defeat Lamanite army of 50,000 with an army of 30,000.
AD 350 – Nephites are given the land northward and Lamanites are given the land southward. Temporary peace is reached. Mormon cries repentance among the people, but they do not listen.
AD 360 – King of Lamanites sends epistle to Mormon stating that war is looming.
AD 361 – Lamanites come to battle at City of Desolation. The Nephites beat them
AD 362 – Nephites beat Lamanites again. Nephites are so prideful of their victories, Mormon refuses to be their leader. Mormon instructs us that we will be judged at the judgment-seat of Christ.
AD 363 – Nephites are repelled and Lamanites take possession of the City of Desolation..
AD 364 – Nephites beat back Lamanites at the City of Teancum.
AD 366 – Lamanites continue to attack. The land is one continuous scene of bloodshed.
AD 367 – Nephites repel Lamanites.
AD 375 – Lamanites come against the Nephites will all their power and the Nephites are swept off and never regain victory. Nephites hold at Boaz, but Lamanites overwhelm them on the second advance. The Nephites are slaughtered. Mormon takes all the records from the hill Shim. At some point, Mormon takes leadership of the army again
AD 380 – Another big battle ensues and Nephites flee.
AD 384 – All the Nephites are gathered for one final battle. Mormon buries all the records in Cumorah and gives the plates to Moroni. The Lamanites destroy all but 24. Over a quarter of a million Nephites die in one day’s battle.
AD 400 – Moroni finishes Mormon’s work and buries the plates. Lamanites hunt down the remainder of the Nephites and those who will not deny the Christ.

Mormon's Lament

"O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you!

"Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss.

"O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen!

"But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return.

"And the day soon cometh that your mortal must put on immortality, and these bodies which are now moldering in corruption must soon become incorruptible bodies; and then ye must stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, to be judged according to your works; and if it so be that ye are righteous, then are ye blessed with your fathers who have gone before you.

"O that ye had repented before this great destruction had come upon you. But behold, ye are gone, and the Father, yea, the Eternal Father of heaven, knoweth your state; and he doeth with you according to his justice and mercy." (Mormon 6:17-22)

November 15, 2012 - Addition

Doctrinal Points

In my original post, I stated there wasn't much in terms of doctrine in these chapters, but there are a few and I would like to address those.

4 Nephi 1:5 - the disciples of Christ "heal the sick, and raise the dead, and cause the lame to walk, and the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear; and all manner of miracles did they work among the children of men."  I was reading in the New Testament last week how Jesus commanded his disciples in to go out and heal the sick, etc. (see Matthew 10).  So, taking both examples of the disciples in the old world and the new world, it would seem that one of the primary directives and commandments for the Apostles is to "gather the lost sheep" and as they go about gathering sheep, they are to heal the sick, clense the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils ... to freely give.

4 Nephi 1:12 - the members of the church continued in fasting and prayer; and they met together often.  I only note this because of the reference to fasting and prayer.  Personally speaking, I feel we members should be fasting more than once a month.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Helaman 11

July 31, 2007 - Original Post

Famine and Fasting

Nephi pleads with the Lord that the people don’t die by the sword rather that they die by hunger. In essence, Nephi is forcing the people to collectively fast. Whenever I truly fast, I am greatly humbled. I have found that I am more passive and willing to submit myself to the will of God when I fast. Not only am I more submissive, but I grow closer to the Spirit. My mind is quieter.

As we fast and grow closer to the Savior, we must strive to always remember His sacrifice. After spiritual experiences, we must be wary of temptations. We must avoid what the Nephites did time and time again. They humbled themselves and then studied the scriptures, only to fall away again. Why did they fall away? They fell because they did not follow the counsels of the prophets.

Contentions Concerning Doctrine

In Helaman 11:22, it says they contended over some points of the doctrine which had been laid down by the prophets.

What does this mean? It means that at some point in time before, the prophets clarified some points of the doctrine. Even today we will hear prophets counsel us again and again about points of the doctrine. Many times they are explicit about what we are to understand. They explain to us how we are to interpret the doctrine. They are the living oracles who see further and clearer than we.

The prophets then, as the prophet today, can settle contentions because they receive revelation. During this time in the Nephite history, the prophets were "having many revelations daily." (Helaman 11:23)

How different the Book of Mormon would have been if the Nephites would have followed the prophets!

Regarding contention, Elder Dallin H. Oaks said this, "It is noteworthy that the Savior did not limit his teaching about disputations and contention to those who had wrong ideas about doctrine or procedure. He forbade disputations and contention by everyone. The commandment to avoid contention applies to those who are right as well as to those who are wrong.” (Book of Mormon Symposium Series, 4 Nephi – Moroni, p. 177)

The Nephite Cycle in a Chapter

One time while reading this chapter, I noted what went on in the Nephite history in one decade. Chapter 11 is a perfect example of the Nephite cycle in one decade. The chapter begins in the Nephite year 72.

In year 73, Nephi asks the Lord to bring a famine to the land. Note that it only took one verse for Nephi to ask this of the Lord. Then for the next two years the Nephites suffer. Finally in year 75 the people ask Nephi to ask the Lord to stop the famine. This time, it takes Nephi seven verses to ask the Lord to stop the famine. In year 76, the famine ends.

For four years, the Nephites prosper and have peace. Then in year 80 the dissentions begin again and the GR are reborn. Basically, the GRs are terrorists as verse 32 points out. The Nephites and Lamanites send their armies to destroy the GRs twice, but fail both times. The chapter ends in year 85 with the people “ripening again for destruction.”
So in the space of 13 years (from year 72 to year 85) we see in this one chapter the Nephites go from being wicked, to being humbled, to having prosperity and peace, to dissentions, to war and finally to wickedness again. It took the Nephites thirteen years for one complete cycle.

September 13, 2012 - Addition

A curious thought crossed my mind this morning while reading Helaman 11:10.

The person speaking is Nephi - a prophet of God.  A few years earlier, he was granted the sealing power of the priesthood - whatever he sealed on earth would be sealed in heaven.  He then used that power, after seeing the desctruction of the war, to plead with God to not let the people be destroyed by war, but by famine.  The famine came; the people repented.

In Helaman 10:10, Nephi begins his plea to God to save them from the famine.  He tells God that the band of Gadianton has been swept away and has become extinct.  This is crucial - there are no Gadianton robbers anymore - they have been wiped out ... as verse 10 states, "they have become extinct."  Now comes the curious statement: "they have concealed their secret plans in the earth."  Nephi knows they (the people who wiped out the Gadianton robbers) concealed the robbers' plans.  But my question is: why did the people or Nephi allow the secret plans to be buried?  Why not destroy the plans too?

As we find out in Helman 11:26, the band of robbers is resurrected and then goes on to "search out all the secret plans of Gadianton."

Monday, June 04, 2012

Alma 36

June 29, 2007 - Original Post


Below is an excerpt from John W. Welch, "A Masterpiece: Alma 36," in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. J.L. Sorenson and M.J. Thorne, Deseret Book Comp., Salt Lake City, Utah, 1991.

(a) My son, give ear to my WORDS (1)
(d) in REMEMBERING THE CAPTIVITY of our fathers (2);
(e) for they were in BONDAGE (2)
(f) he surely did DELIVER them (2)
(g) TRUST in God (3)
(h) supported in their TRIALS, and TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (3)
(i) shall be lifted up at the LAST DAY (3)
(j) I KNOW this not of myself but of GOD (4)
(k) BORN OF GOD (5)
(l) I sought to destroy the church of God (6-9)
(m) MY LIMBS were paralyzed (10)
(n) Fear of being in the PRESENCE OF GOD (14-15)
(o) PAINS of a damned soul (16)
(q) I remembered JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD (17)
(q') I cried, JESUS, SON OF GOD (18)
(o') Joy as exceeding as was the PAIN (20)
(n') Long to be in the PRESENCE OF GOD (22)
(m') My LIMBS received their strength again (23)
(l') I labored to bring souls to repentance (24)
(k') BORN OF GOD (26)
(j') Therefore MY KNOWLEDGE IS OF GOD (26)
(h') Supported under TRIALS, TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (27)
(g') TRUST in him (27)
(f') He will deliver me (27)
(e') As God brought our fathers out of BONDAGE and captivity (28-29)
(c') KNOW AS I DO KNOW (30)
(a') This is according to his WORD (30).

Keep the Commandments and Prosper in the Land

Since the chapter is a chiasmus, the beginning and end of the chapter contains this counsel: keep the commandments and you will prosper in the land. This is a repeating theme throughout the Book of Mormon. Alma and the rest of the people who keep the commandments are proof that this promise is true. As the Nephites kept the commandments, they prospered. As they disobeyed, their riches and quality of lift greatly diminished.

Delivered from Bondage

The rest of the chapter provides examples of people who were in physical or spiritual bondage, who put their trust in God and were consequently delivered. This is another repeating theme in the Book of Mormon. Alma reminds Helaman of the Israelites bondage and how they were delivered. He also reminds Helaman of his own spiritual bondage and his conversion. Lastly Alma reminds Helaman of how Lehi and his family were delivered as well as the bondage of the people of Alma the Senior.

"Whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day." (Alma 36:3)

He later testifies, "I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; yea, God has delivered me from prison, and from bonds, and from death; yea, and I do put my trust in him, and he will still deliver me." (Alma 36:27)

What types of bondage and troubles and afflictions and trials do we face today? Are we burdened with sin? Do our families suffer from troubles and afflictions and trials? Does it seem that we are fighting an uphill battle? We may struggle on our own to overcome, but whether we succeed or fail, God will always be there to support us and help us if we but put our trust in him and ask for his succor. More than likely, if we try to overcome our own troubles without God's help, we will fail or unnecessarily toil. We should seek God's help and put our trust in him.

One of my favorite scriptures is Proverbs 3:5-6. "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

"In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."

I have experienced the hand of the Lord in my life. I know that when I put my trust in him, he delivers me.

June 4, 2012 - Addition

Alma 36:22 really stood out to me today ... especially the last seven words of that verse.  Alma talks about the torment he experienced until he called on Jesus Christ to save him.  Immediately, Christ relieved the pain Alma was in.  Then Alma was filled with joy as equally powerful as the pain he felt.  Then he saw God sitting on his throne, surrounded by angels who were "in the attitude of singing and praising their God."

And then Alma says this, "my soul did long to be there."

There are 18 years between my older brother and me.  He and his wife came to visit us one summer ... I must have been about 9 or 10 years old.  It was a wonderful time.  I'm sure we had bbqs, played basketball and talked a lot.  I honestly don't remember much of that.  Rather, what I remember is a very intense pain when they were leaving.  I still vividly remember sitting on the porch step in the garage and watching my brother and his wife pull out of the drive way and drive off back to their home.  I was extremely sad to see them leave.  I bawled as I watched them leave ... I longed to be with them.

Now I'm sure Alma's longing was a bit more intense than mine, but I'm grateful for the bit of perspective that I do have on that feeling of longing.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Alma 1

April 10, 2007 - Original Post

The Gospel Warrior

V1 – “having warred a good warfare, walking uprightly before God.” I remember in the October 2003 General Conference, at the very beginning President Hinckley spoke. After he spoke, he called Elder David Haight to come up and wave at the audience. Elder Haight was the oldest apostle ever to live since the Gospel was restored. As President Hinckley was commenting on this, he mentioned that Elder Haight was a great warrior in the Gospel. Elder Haight died in 2004. He truly was a warrior of the Lord … he fought for the Gospel truth all his life.

I hope that I can war a good warfare all my life. I need to be steadfast in keeping the commandments and in doing good.

On a related note, I was thinking the other day about how much life is like chess. We must live with purpose and we must limit mistakes in order to get to the endgame and have a fighting chance to win the battle. In chess, one of the levels of play a player must reach is being able to play with no tactical mistakes. If he can reach this level, then he prepares himself to move on to greater challenges of strategy. I think life is the same way. If we (I) can simply rid myself of the small mistakes and omissions, then I would be a position to receive greater understanding of the mysteries of God. I would serve with greater conviction. For example, if I could consistently read and study the scriptures every day and consistently pray every day, then I would be getting somewhere. If I could achieve 100% home-teaching every month and have FHE every week, then I would be accomplishing something. To not forget these commandments and to shun sin … this is what I need to work on.

Priest Craft

Nehor introduced priest craft among the Nephites. Priest craft, from what I understand, is teaching the gospel (or purported gospel truths) for the gain of money. I am unsure of some of these “conferences” and seminars that some members go to. In order to listen to the speakers at these conferences and seminars, people must pay money.

Elder Oakes said the following regarding priestcraft:
Another illustration of a strength that can become our downfall concerns charismatic teachers. With a trained mind and a skillful manner of presentation, teachers can become unusually popular and effective in teaching. But Satan will try to use that strength to corrupt teachers by encouraging them to gather a following of disciples. A Church teacher, Church Education System instructor, or Latter-day Saint university professor who gathers such a following and does this “for the sake of riches and honor” (Alma 1:16) is guilty of priestcraft. “Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Ne. 26:29).

Teachers who are most popular, and therefore most effective, have a special susceptibility to priestcraft. If they are not careful, their strength can become their spiritual downfall. They can become like Almon Babbitt, with whom the Lord was not pleased, because “he aspireth to establish his counsel instead of the counsel which I have ordained, even that of the Presidency of my Church; and he setteth up a golden calf for the worship of my people” (D&C 124:84). (Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, Oct 1994, 11)
I am a leery of the practice of merchandising the Gospel. I love the fact that the Church has done almost everything in its power to make available the conference talks and past articles from Church publications. Practically every conceivable document in recent history is found on the website. I love to be able to search on Gospel subjects (such as this one) and find exactly what the Apostles think of the subject. The Church truly “impart[s] the word of God …. without money and without price (v. 20).

2 Nephi 26:29 has this to say about priest crafts, "He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion."

Nehor not only preached for riches, but he mixed scripture with the philosophies of men. The lies he taught – that all mankind should be saved, meaning eternal life, regardless of having sinned or not. He taught that we need not repent. The truth he mixed in was that the Lord created all men. This was the one truth amidst all the lies.

Thus a whole church was based on the “vain things of the world” (v. 16). We will see that this church hardened many Nephite hearts against the truth.

The proper attitude for teaching the Gospel is to have "faith, hope, charity and love with an eye single to the glory of God." (D&C 4:5) If the teacher strives for these things, then he will teach the true and pure doctrine of Christ.

Persecution … it is a word that is used a lot within the Church. There are a couple of definitions from Webster’s on-line dictionary. The first is, “to harass in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief.” The second is, “to annoy with persistence or urgent approaches (as attacks, pleas, or importunities).” I think the whole reason for persecuting someone for his or her beliefs is to make that person change or leave. For example, Laman and Lemuel constantly persecuted Nephi. They did not want Nephi to act the way he did because it made them feel uncomfortable … they didn’t want to have to live up to Nephi’s standard of living, so instead of raising their standards, they wanted to lower Nephi’s.

The pioneer Saints were persecuted for various reasons. Some of the persecutors were former members. These former members were usually offended in some manner and wanted to get their revenge on the members of the church. I think most of these members were angry in one-way or another with Joseph Smith. They ultimately killed the Prophet. The martyrdom of Joseph did not stop the persecution. The Saints were driven from Nauvoo across the plains to Utah. For a season they were not persecuted, but once the Civil War ended, the federal government focused on the Mormons again. I don’t know all the reasons why the early Saints were persecuted, but I think a lot of it has to do with former members who were offended in one way or another.

Even today, there are those who will do anything to speak evil of the Church. If you go and look at that person’s history, you will more than likely find that that person did not strive to cultivate a true testimony. They probably had doubts and never resolved to truly address those doubts. I think it was Elder Maxwell who said that there are those who leave the church, but for whatever reason, they can’t leave the church alone.

As for members persecuting others … we are commanded to not persecute anyone. It seems that the members had problems persecuting non-members (if you will) in Book of Mormon times. They were commanded to not persecute anyone … within the church or without the church. President Hinckley gave a similar warning to members in a General Conference.

A holier-than-thou attitude is not becoming to us. I am in receipt of a letter from a man in our community who is not a member of the Church. In it he says that his little daughter has been ostracized by her schoolmates who are Latter-day Saints. He sets forth another instance of a child who, it is alleged, had a religious medal ripped from his neck by an LDS child. I hope this is not true. If it is, I apologize to those who have been offended.

Let us rise above all such conduct and teach our children to do likewise. Let us be true disciples of the Christ, observing the Golden Rule, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us strengthen our own faith and that of our children while being gracious to those who are not of our faith. Love and respect will overcome every element of animosity. Our kindness may be the most persuasive argument for that which we believe." (Gordon B. Hinckley, “We Bear Witness of Him,” Ensign, May 1998, 4)
Those who would detract from the Church are always quick to point out mistakes made by members. Persecuting others does no good. It is not Christ-like nor does it advance the work of the Lord.

Steadfast and Immovable

Another verse that I really love from this chapter is v.25, “they were steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments of God.” My true heart’s desire is to be steadfast and immovable. To me, this means that I am an anchor when it comes to keeping the commandments of God. I need to remain steadfast and constant. This is my hope: that I become a rock in my loyalty to God. I need to be more diligent in reading the scriptures, obeying the commandments and magnifying my callings. I need despise sin in all forms and shun that which is evil. I hope I can become like those few saints described here in Alma 1.

Because the saints were steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments, they prospered. And instead of becoming wicked (and thus beginning the so-called Nephite cycle), these saints "got it." They did not become prideful because of their prosperity. Rather they "did not set their hearts upon riches" and they were "liberal to all." (Alma 1:30). And because they were liberal to all, the Lord prospered them even more and they became "far more wealthy than those who did not belong to their church." (Alma 1:31)

Did Indulge Themselves
I think that Alma 1:32 perfectly sums up the world in which we live today. All those who were not steadfast and immovable "did indulge themselves." In other words, they did not check their natural desires in the least bit. Rather than feast on the word of God, the indulged themselves in the things of the world.

April 10, 2012 - Addition

Another Look at Nehor's Teachings

Alma 1:3-4 are the core of Nehor's teaching.  Let's examine them line by line to see if they are philosophies of men or if they are scripture.

First off, Nehor claimed his teachings were "the word of God".  How do we know when someone is teaching the word of God as opposed to a philosophy of men?  This topic alone can take up an entire post.  But to be quick, I would say the burden is on the individual.  We must each, on our own, gain a testimony of each General Conference talk; each Ensign article; every Sunday School lesson; every theory proposed by man; every proposed leader. We have the gift of the Holy Ghost to filter out the false and to allow the true.

Next, he "[bore down] against the church"  Just to make it clear, "bear down" means "to advance in a threatening manner" or "to apply maximum effort and concentration"  Similarly, "to bear down on" means to "effect in a harmful or adverse way" (link).  In other words, Nehor was aiming to bring the church down - to bring about its fall.  Further reading of the book of Alma shows that Nehor's teachings were widely successful in their intent.  How do we prevent from "bearing down" against the Church today?  I would say that each of us ought to focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If we focus on learning, studying and living the Gospel, we will not go astray.

Nehor's next principle is "every priest and teacher ought to become popular."  I think it is fairly safe to say this is a philosophy of men.  Bishops, Stake Presidents, Sunday School teachers, seminary teachers, Church-sponsored university professors, General Authorities, Apostles ... all of them should be keenly aware that they should not focus on becoming popular.  I think almost all of these people have a clear intent not to become popular - that that is not their main focus.  But sometimes, do we, the congregation - the receivers of the word - do we make them popular?  Do we idolize them?  There is a very subtle slippery slope here.  Again, I think the answer to this problem lies in focusing on the message and not the person.  If we use our spiritual antennae to detect truth and to detect lies, we will not get caught up in the "favorite apostle" or "favorite general authority" or "favorite teacher" game - and thus begin the false doctrine of popularity in preaching the word of God.  Another way to look at this in a succinct matter is to turn Nehor's teaching upside down to get this: "every priest and teacher ought not to become popular."

Nehor next teaches that our priest and teachers "ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people."  Wow!  Let's break this down.  What does "labor with their hands" mean?  To me, it means to work for a living.  In today's terms, it means that our Church leaders should support themselves.  Elder Oaks just gave a talk in the April 2012 General Conference.  In it he talked about the sacrifice of our local leaders and congregation members.  As for our top leaders - the General Authorities - there is a lot of discussion on that - with lots of varied opinions.  A search in the LDS Bloggernacle is probably a good starting place.  So is this Nehor teaching a philosophy of men or is it scripture or is it mingled?  Personally, I think it is a philosophy of men.  At the core (strip everything else away that is not needed), what the Church provides that is of utmost importance to me is the Priesthood and sealing power.  I was baptized, bestowed the Priesthood, endowed and sealed to my wife and children and I did not have to pay for any of that.

Now we get to the grit of Nehor's message - the part that everyone is quick to point out.  He says, "all mankind should be saved at the last day."  Let's use the "flip method" and turn that statement upside down.  "All mankind should not be saved at the last day."  If you take away the need to repent - to change and make better you life - then you change one's perspective on life.  If there is no need to be kind, to serve, to be good and we are left with nothing but our base desires, civilization would revert to the jungle - to anarchy.  And this is the teaching that was so dangerous in Alma's mind.  To be truly sanctified, we have to overcome all our natural desires.  That is at the core of Christ's teachings.  We each have an instinct to choose the wrong in so many ways.  But if we can fight to overcome those instincts, we sanctify ourselves - we purify ourselves - we strip out all that is useless.  And what we have left is beautiful.  Indeed, this philosophy of men that Nehor taught was and is dangerous.  This one thought caused the destruction, both spiritual and temporal, of thousands of Nephites and Lamanites.  This one thought deceives millions of people today.  This one thought is what makes Nehor an anti-Christ because this teaching stands in violent rebellion of what Christ taught.

He goes on by teaching that people "need not fear nor tremble."  This is where the mingling begins.  We are not to live our lives in constant fear and trembling.  We are to let the realities sink deep within our hearts.  In other words, if we truly know what will happen to us if we do not keep the commandments, we ought to fear and tremble unto repentance.  But once we've done that and once we are on constant guard, we can focus on the joy and the abundance of the Gospel.  Nehor would have us believe that we have to always be in a state of fear and tremble.  But if we live and love the Gospel, I just don't think that would be the case.  I can't see a sanctified person fearing and trembling all the time - rather, I see them looking forward to eternal bliss.

The mingling continues, "but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice."  Again, as I noted above, we ought to let the fear of God work within us to repentance.  But once we've entered into the straight and narrow path, we ought to continue in repentance, but we can then begin to look forward to a better life.  God wants us to lift up our heads and rejoice - but with the proper base of repentance and faith on Christ and baptism.

Now Nehor inserts pure scripture, "for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men."  All those statements, by themselves, are true.

But he completely goes astray again by saying, "all men should have eternal life."  Instead, he should have said, "all men should have immortality."  Maybe he mis-understood this scripture - I don't know.  But all men will not live in God's presence for eternity.  Many men will receive a lesser degree of glory because they won't be able to abide the presence of God.  Men not living in the presence of God is not necessarily an act of punishment, but rather an act of mercy.