In other essays on this website, we have argued that Mormonism’s teachings were in error in teaching that the only true church had to be run by high priests holding the priesthood of Melchizedek, in that this doctrine is completely at odds with Bible and Book of Mormon teachings. Some of those essays can be read here, here, and here. We have also argued that the priesthood held by the descendants of Aaron was solely a relic of the Law of Moses, and that when Jesus fulfilled and brought to an end the Mosaic law following his resurrection and appearance to the Nephites, the priesthood of Aaron also ceased to exist and was not to be revived. See, e.g., The Righteous Offering of the Sons of Levi–2000 Years Ago elsewhere on this website. This essay will focus, not on the doctrinal problems of Mormonism’s belief in the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods in our time, but on whether the historical evidence demonstrates the authority of the Aaronic and Melchizedek “priesthoods”, as Mormons called them, were restored by resurrected heavenly messengers to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. In other words, does purely historical analysis show that these events actually occurred, or not?
Many have wondered and speculated how exactly the first Alma received the power and authority to form the church of Christ on earth. Because of our LDS background, we tend to search out lines of authority, wanting to know who gave a man his priesthood, and who gave that man his priesthood, and trace the whole “line of authority” back to its original source. But it doesn’t appear to have worked that way among the Nephites. The Nephites had no descendants of Levi among them, and Levites were the only tribe among the Israelites allowed to hold the priesthood. (Mormons assume that all Old Testament, New Testament and Book of Mormon prophets such as Abraham, Jacob, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, Nephi, Jacob and Abinadi held priesthood authority, but this notion finds no support in the Bible or Book of Mormon.) So, the practice among Nephites was for kings to appoint their priests and high priests without respect to lineage. Zeniff had appointed his own priests, and Noah had replaced those priests with a group of men whom he “consecrated” to be priests and high priests, the latter receiving elevated golden seats in the temple on which to sit. These priests are described as having been “lifted up in the pride of their hearts,” and given to many wicked practices, Mosiah 11: 4-11. These passages describing their evil, as we will show, necessarily meant that by definition, they could possess none of God’s authority.
Alma appears to have been one of those wicked priests, but as is argued in this essay, it is inconceivable that he received power and authority to later found the church of Christ from being consecrated by evil Noah, who had never had the endorsement of the Lord because of his evil designs. It would be the same if Adolf Hitler, upon assuming control over Germany, had appointed himself the leader of all Christians living within his domain. His appointment of men to lead Christianity, regardless of whether it were just LDS Christians or all Christians, would not receive heavenly endorsement.
Later in his life, after the events discussed herein, when Alma had brought his people to Zarahemla, King Mosiah had given him authority to organize the newly-introduced church as he saw fit, which church was now being introduced by Alma into the Nephite nation as a whole. Mosiah 25: 19; 26: 7,8. However, Alma had already become high priest over the church earlier when he’d founded it at the waters of Mormon. Mosiah 23:16. So how did he get the “power and authority” to assume this great honor?
It’s our hypothesis that he received it right before he baptized Helam in the waters of Mormon. At that moment, he cried, “O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.” He was specifically seeking that holiness of heart that the wicked priests of King Noah had not possessed. Because of Alma’s singlemindedly pure intent, which God recognized, “when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God . . .” Mosiah 18: 12,13. Before that moment, Alma had never claimed to have received God’s authority. It appears the holiness of heart he prayed for, if recognized by God, was what would allow God to confer authority–in other words, divine approbation and endorsement–on the baptisms he was about to perform.
Yes, that’s what we’re saying. We believe Alma received power and authority to found the church of Christ, and be its first high priest, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon him and moved him to proceed. He had heard God’s voice calling him through Abinadi, and had manifested that crucial ability to repent that had always been required of all high priests. In olden times, men had been ordained as high priests “on account of their exceeding faith and repentance, and their righteousness before God, they choosing to repent and work righteousness rather than to perish; Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb.” Alma 13: 10-11. Alma had completed this process, and was now imbued with power and authority to begin the great work with God’s endorsement.
Contrary to the idea promoted in the Book of Abraham (which we have argued in a separate essay on this website was not divinely revealed to Joseph Smith) that the High Priesthood was hereditary, and passed down from father to son (see Abraham 1:2-4, and the same notion propounded in Doctrine and Covenants 84: 6-16 and 107: 40-52), the Book of Mormon makes clear in the passages quoted above that the authority of high priests came to them based on their “exceeding faith and repentance.” Thus, the LDS concept of a “line of authority” being a prerequisite to holding the office of high priest is not only uncorroborated by the Book of Mormon, but contradicted by it.
This raises a point that seems paradoxical to orthodox Mormons: While Alma was repenting of his sins and founding the church of Christ in the land of Nephi, the main body of Nephites in Zarahemla were being led, spiritually and civilly, by a very rare man who is not described in the Book of Mormon as possessing priesthood authority or leading God’s “church.” Yet, the text demonstrates he was indisputably a great spiritual leader. This man, King Mosiah, son of righteous King Benjamin, met the scriptural definition of a prophet, seer and revelator, which is to say that he actually possessed the interpreters, which gave him the ability to access knowledge that no one else could access. Possession of these interpreters was deemed the greatest gift God could give to man. Mosiah 8:15. Nevertheless, the Book of Mormon makes clear that Mosiah’s people, though they had been taught of Christ and many had accepted him, still didn’t have among them the formally-organized church of Christ, and their great spiritual leader Mosiah was not recognized as any kind of priest. However, it is also easily inferred from the text that what Mosiah did as king, seer, prophet and revelator was done with God’s approval and inspiration.
By contrast, in our latter-day era, since early 1830, Mormons haven’t required their leaders to actually possess seer stones or interpreters to qualify as a seer like Mosiah was. However, LDS people nevertheless believe that a seer, who in Book of Mormon times was also a considered a prophet and a revelator (see Mosiah 8: 15-16), could not have possibly existed anciently, and cannot exist now, without the church of Christ existing with him and him presiding over it. They also don’t believe it possible such a prophet, seer and revelator could possibly not hold “priesthood authority.” But the LDS Church’s modern organizational structure, and its notion of indispensable “priesthood” authority, was unfamiliar to the Nephites, both before and after Christ. The notion that seers, prophet and revelators were necessarily priests is completely absent from the Bible or Book of Mormon.
A friend of ours, who is himself a devoted, lifelong student of the Book of Mormon and an orthodox member of the LDS Church, disagrees with the conclusions we reach here. He has argued that Nephite leaders held priesthood authority, even though the text doesn’t say so. He has speculated why it is that Ammon (the first Ammon mentioned in the Book of Mormon, not the son of Mosiah) didn’t actually baptize anyone when Limhi and his people wanted to be baptized but were separated from the followers of Alma. Our friend argues that Ammon must have held the priesthood, but didn’t feel worthy to perform the baptism, and thus declined. He also opines that if Ammon hadn’t held the priesthood, he would have said that he couldn’t baptize because he didn’t hold the priesthood. Regarding this, our point, as explained above, is that the Book of Mormon indicates that no “priesthood”, as we think of it in Mormonism, was necessary to do a baptism. For this reason, Ammon didn’t mention not having the priesthood because that wasn’t required anyway; it was a concept he would have been completely unfamiliar with.
The related idea that someone had to have someone else give them “priesthood” in order to baptize also wasn’t, and isn’t, a concept found in the ancient scriptures. Compare Matthew 21: 24-32, where Jesus, in telling the Pharisees by what authority John the Baptist baptized, didn’t cite to his “priesthood authority”, but to his “righteousness,” which meant he had heavenly endorsement. If the mechanical act of having someone confer the priesthood upon you were the determiner of whether or not you were authorized by God to do baptisms, Jesus’ description of John’s greatness wouldn’t have made sense. Jesus was suggesting the Pharisees judge John’s baptisms on the spiritual merit of his message and intentions, just as Alma’s baptisms were judged. We contend that Ammon didn’t feel worthy because he knew he hadn’t had the Spirit of the Lord come upon him in such a way as to make him an appropriate representative of God. The scriptures describing Ammon’s feelings of having insufficient authorization seem to bear this conclusion out: From Mosiah 21 we read:
32 And now since the coming of Ammon, king Limhi had also entered into a covenant with God, and also many of his people, to serve him and keep his commandments.
33 And it came to pass that king Limhi and many of his people were desirous to be baptized; but there was none in the land that had authority from God. And Ammon declined doing this thing, considering himself an unworthy servant [i.e., one who hadn’t had the type of spiritual authorization Alma had received].
34 Therefore they did not at that time form themselves into a church, waiting upon the Spirit of the Lord. [Compare Mosiah 18:13 for the same phraseology used to describe the process whereby Alma received authority.] Now they were desirous to become even as Alma and his brethren, who had fled into the wilderness.
35 They were desirous to be baptized as a witness and a testimony that they were willing to serve God with all their hearts; nevertheless they did prolong the time; and an account of their baptism shall be given hereafter.
It’s interesting to note Jesus’ use of the phrase, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” in Luke 4: 18, quoting Isaiah 61: 1. Jesus said these words to bear witness to his own authority as the anointed one, the prophesied Messiah about whom Isaiah had written. These words seem to signify divine authorization, as Isaiah, Jesus and Mormon all use this phrase in the same way.
In conclusion, the Book of Mormon teaches that authority to lead the Church of Christ was not based on a receiving priesthood through a line of authority. Authority was conferred through living in such a way as to merit the conferral of the Spirit of God. Moreover, seers, prophets and revelators were not required to hold the priesthood to be the spiritual leaders of the Nephites during periods before the church was formally organized among them.
(Note: For further information on the conflict between LDS doctrine on Melchizedek Priesthood Authority and the teachings in the Bible and Book of Mormon, see the essay “Erroneous LDS Teachings concerning Melchizedek Priesthood Authority” on this same website, or using the search term “Melchizedek Priesthood.” The subject of the absence of high priests among the Nephites after Christ is soon to be treated in a separate essay on this website.)