(Note to reader: The essay on this website entitled “The Initial Loss of the Gospel of Christ among the Nephites” leads up to the points that we focus on in this essay.)
The significance of Abinadi’s preaching to the court of King Noah about the coming of God to the world to die and be resurrected cannot be overemphasized. The effect of Abinadi’s words wrought such a great change in Alma, that it resulted in him formally founding the church of Christ (also variously called the church of God, Mosiah 18: 17) among the Nephites. Though King Benjamin had already delivered his sermon on Christ from the temple in Zarahemla, Alma’s generation hadn’t heard it, because they were descended from the large group of Nephites whose departure from Zarahemla with Zeniff to re-settle the land of Nephi had preceded Benjamin’s speech. Though Benjamin’s address had had a dramatic effect on his audience, the actual founding of the church of Christ in Zarahemla had remained yet unaccomplished. Accordingly, the events at at the waters of Mormon assumed even more prominence in Nephite history. When Alma embarked on his new, repentant life and started baptizing in the waters of Mormon, the occasion was of such moment that Mormon himself, writing five centuries later about the hallowed place after which he himself had been named, rhapsodized:
And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever.
(See Mosiah 18: 30.)
Mormon’s sentiments about this sacred event echoed what the the Lord himself had said about it. The Lord considered the day at the waters of Mormon to be the founding of his church. When years later Alma prayed concerning how to govern the nascent Christian church, the Lord began his answer to Alma with the words, which we read in the following verses of Mosiah Chapter 26:
15 Blessed art thou, Alma, and blessed are they who were baptized in the waters of Mormon. Thou art blessed because of thy exceeding faith in the words alone of my servant Abinadi. 16 And blessed are they because of their exceeding faith in the words alone which thou hast spoken unto them. 17 And blessed art thou because thou hast established a church among this people; and they shall be established, and they shall be my people.
18 Yea, blessed is this people who are willing to bear my name; for in my name shall they be called; and they are mine.
The Lord in these verses not only signals the importance of the events at the waters of Mormon, but also makes clear what kind of faith he prizes most. Faith born of hearing (or reading) the word alone, which causes the listener to recognize its divinely-inspired truth, unaccompanied by impressive visual demonstrations, is the highest kind of faith man can exercise. The Lord later would reiterate this point about faith to Thomas and his apostles in Palestine, and to the Nephites at Bountiful. John 20:29; III Nephi 12: 1-2. Later, as Alma the younger continued his father’s ministry, he reflected this same understanding of when and where the church had actually begun. Preaching to those at Zarahemla, he said, in Alma 5: 3-5:
I, Alma, having been consecrated by my father, Alma, to be a high priest over the church of God, he having power and authority from God to do these things, behold, I say unto you that he began to establish a church in the land which was in the borders of Nephi; yea, the land which was called the land of Mormon; yea, and he did baptize his brethren in the waters of Mormon . . .
I say unto you, they were in captivity, and again the Lord did deliver them out of bondage by the power of his word; and we were brought into this land, and here we began to establish the church of God throughout this land also.
The account of the baptisms at the waters of Mormon described in 18th chapter of Mosiah therefore makes that chapter one of the most memorable ones in all of scripture. Before baptizing the 204 souls gathered in that place, Alma had taught them what it means to be a Christian, describing a religion as being much simpler, but much deeper, than the ritualistic Judaism they had inherited from their Israelite past:
1 And now, it came to pass that Alma, who had fled from the servants of king Noah, repented of his sins and iniquities, and went about privately among the people, and began to teach the words of Abinadi—
2 Yea, concerning that which was to come, and also concerning the resurrection of the dead, and the redemption of the people, which was to be brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven . . .
7 And it came to pass after many days there were a goodly number gathered together at the place of Mormon, to hear the words of Alma. Yea, all were gathered together that believed on his word, to hear him. And he did teach them, and did preach unto them repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord.
8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
11 And now when the people had heard these words, they clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts.
Mosiah 18: 1-10
The obvious problem facing the first Alma, and later his successors, was that they were trying to supplement Judaism’s Law of Moses, practiced by the majority of the Nephites, with a Christian gospel that placed far less emphasis on ritual and “chosenness” and much more emphasis on God’s kindness to us, and our kindness to each other. Teaching the transplanted Israelites what their inherited religion was really all about didn’t come without great effort. Repeatedly, until Jesus personally visited the Nephites, there arose challenges to the idea of a coming Christ who would suffer death for his people, and a stubborn resistance to the idea that it was wrong to exalt oneself over one’s neighbor because of one’s wealth or station in life. Alma taught his early converts that not only would he not become their king, but that “every man should love his neighbor as himself, that there should be no contention among them.” Mosiah 23: 6. And Alma’s successors patiently carried this message of repentance, equality and kindness to the Nephites everywhere, “in their temples, and in their sanctuaries, and also in their synagogues, which were built after the manner of the Jews.” See Alma 16: 13.
In its most successful periods, the new religion was an enlightened, hybrid form of Judaism and Christianity that still practiced the Law of Moses, but understood Christ’s fundamental teachings to be the intended focus, and that the Law was only designed to point the people to the coming Messiah. The religion still had temples and high priests and intricate customs, but the message was much different from the rigid Judaism which was simultaneously being preached in Palestine by the Maccabees and their successors. The final break from the law of Moses didn’t come until Jesus told the people in person that that the Law of Moses had ended, and that they should not marvel over this fact. See III Nephi 15: 2-9. Thereafter, temples, high priests and Old Testament customs received no more mention in the Book of Mormon. (Some Book of Mormon scholars have hypothesized that when Jesus descended out of heaven and appeared to the Nephites, the reason a multitude of them were gathered there at the temple in Bountiful in the first place was because they were observing a Jewish holiday under the Law of Moses, and that this explanation gives even more context to the people marveling when Jesus explained he was ending the Law of Moses. 3 Nephi 11: 2 states these people were also “conversing about this Jesus Christ, of whom the sign had been given concerning his death.” Some scholars have also concluded that the “great and marvelous change” that caused them so much wonder was a spiritual one that had so transformed the people in the year since the destruction. We tend to like these explanations; they sound right. It was a religious gathering to begin with, and it was the perfect setting for Christ to introduce the teachings which would define his gospel going forward.)
In summary, the day at the waters of Mormon was a watershed event in religious history. When we think about the founding principles of our faith, we would do well to reread of the things said and done at that place, for as the man Mormon said, “how beautiful are they.”