Baptism for the Dead: True Christian Doctrine and Practice, or LDS Construction?

Note: The following essay was contributed by frequent contributor Scott S. Mitchell.

 

In the one of the most enigmatic scriptures in the entire Bible, the apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians about the universality of the resurrection, said these words: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (See 1 Corinthians 15:29.) This passage has perplexed Christian scholars, and been the subject of much debate, since the second century A.D., and rightfully so. Jesus himself never taught baptizing for the dead to the Jews in Palestine or the Nephites in the New World. No other prophet, apostle or disciple made any mention of it, either. And even Paul uses the word “they” instead of the word “we” in describing who practices it, without clarifying who “they” refers to.  In the next verse, however, he does use the word “we” to describe a separate practice in which he personally participated–“standing in jeopardy every hour”, or being physically endangered by persecutors at all times because of his and his fellows’ Christian beliefs.  See 1 Cor. 15:30.

In 1841, however, Joseph Smith, founder of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “LDS Church” or “Mormonism”), began teaching that the practice of vicarious baptisms for the dead was a vital and integral practice among God’s people, dating back to the beginning of time.  The only proof text Joseph cited which actually mentions baptism for the dead was the aforementioned 1 Corinthians 15:29.  Consequently, however, the LDS Church began performing baptisms of live persons vicariously for persons who had died without being baptised into Mormonism.  To this day, millions of such baptisms are performed each year, exclusively in LDS temples, in order to provide the possibility of salvation to those who died without it.

Interpretation by Bible Scholars

The scholarly response to this passage is uniformly uncertain about it. From the Fully Revised Fourth Edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible: “It is not clear what was involved in the Corinthian practice of baptism on behalf of the dead. Paul appeals to the practice to suggest to the Corinthians that they have an implicit faith in the resurrection.”1

From Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary:

The exact meaning of this practice is uncertain. Some scholars believe it refers to the re-baptism of Christians for the benefit of people who had died unbaptized but already believing. But other scholars insist it refers to a baptismal formula in the Corinthian church that promised that believers would rise from the dead at the end of time to reign with Christ.2

From Archaeological Study Bible:

Every theory has some problems, but some are more plausible than others:

One explanation holds that Paul was alluding to some form of “proxy baptism” (an individual being baptized to secure the salvation of ancestors, relatives or friends who had died without Christ). There is no indication in his text, however, that Corinthians were being baptized for their ancestors or for other dead pagans—and no evidence that this was ever practiced in the early church.

Some suggest that the term refers to baptism for believers who had died unbaptized; others that it may have been some ritual rated in a superstitious belief that baptism itself almost magical, life-giving power. The Corinthian believers may have been influenced by a local cult of the dead at Corinth. On the other hand, if such a pagan background were behind this practice, we would expect Paul to have voiced disapproval.

Still others propose that the phrase actually means “baptized in the place of the dead” in the sense of taking the place of Christian martyrs who had lost their lives for the faith. This kind of baptism would have been a rite whereby a living believer symbolically took the place of this or her fallen brother or sister. This interpretation has some support in the context, since Paul immediately spoke in the following verses (vv. 30-32) of his own endurance of persecution.3

 

Book of Mormon Teachings

As stated above, Jesus Christ himself is not reported to have said a word about baptism for the dead when he founded his church in Israel or in the western hemisphere.  However, the Book of Mormon prophet Mormon, as quoted in Moroni 8:21-24, left no doubt that a practice like baptism for the dead was not only unnecessary, but was a corruption of the pure gospel preached in the Book of Mormon. This scripture unequivocally teaches that people who don’t have the gospel preached to them in this life don’t need baptism, either as living mortals or as spirits in the spirit world.  Baptism is only for people who have had the gospel preached to them and have had the opportunity to knowingly break God’s law.  Mormon said:

21 . . . I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them [Mormon’s words] and give heed, or they stand against you at the judgment-seat of Christ.
22 For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing—
23 But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.
24 Behold, my son, this thing ought not to be; for repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law.

Dead people who died without the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel comprise the overwhelming majority of those who have lived on this earth.  When they die, they no longer have the ability in the spirit world to break the commandments of God.  Having lived in mortality without Christ’s gospel law, they therefore need no baptism in this life, nor in the world of spirits, where they cannot break any law.

Teachings of Joseph Smith

Despite Mormon’s teachings in the Book of Mormon, in 1841, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith began teaching his followers the church needed to build a temple in its then-headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois, wherein they could perform baptisms for the dead.  Purporting to be quoting the Lord himself, Joseph produced this mandate:

For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead–

. . .

But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.

But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not ve acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead [!], saith the Lord you God.

For verily I say unto you, that after you have had sufficient time to build a house to me, wherein the ordinance of baptizing for the dead belongeth, and for which the same was instituted from before the foundation of the world, your baptisms for your dead cannot be acceptable unto me;

. . .

And after this time, your baptisms for the dead by those who are scattered abroad, are not acceptable unto me, saith the Lord.

(See Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter “D&C”) 124:29, 31-33, 35.  Emphasis and commentary added.)

The assertions and ramifications of the above verses are stunning.  According to Joseph Smith, the Lord is claiming something never before taught by anyone in the Old Testament, New Testament or Book of Mormon, even during the time when the kingdom of God was on earth with the Nephites and the resurrected Lord reigned over it–that baptisms for the dead performed in temples was a practice instituted from the foundation of the world.  Historically, this assertion is simply false.  Everything done in the Israelite and Jewish temples is described in the Bible, and baptisms for the dead are never mentioned.  The foremost Jewish scholars have never heard of this temple practice.  The Nephite temples were modeled after the Israelites’ temple of Solomon, and the rites of the Mosaic law prevailed there until Jesus brought it to an end.  (See 2 Nephi 5:16; Alma 25: 15-16; 3 Nephi 15: 4-9.)

The other startling notion from D&C 124 is that the Lord would not only reject the church, but also its dead, if the Mormons in Nauvoo don’t build the temple by the unstated deadline imposed.  Thus, not only would the church cease to be the Lord’s church, ostensibly leaving Him without a church on earth in the latter days, but all the earth’s innocent deceased former inhabitants, who played no part in the Nauvoo saints’ failure to work fast enough, would lose their chance at salvation.  This author has no qualms about declaring this notion absurd.  God doesn’t work that way.  He doesn’t punish the innocent for the supposed derelictions of others.  Mormons purport to agree with the author on this point, as manifested by the LDS Church’s second Article of Faith:  “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s [or anyone else’s, we might add] transgression.”  This author’s conclusion is that D&C 124 is simply not a revelation from God, and Joseph Smith was fallible enough to claim otherwise because he wanted the temple built in Nauvoo that had failed to be built in Jackson County, Missouri.

After mandating a temple be built to facilitate baptisms for the dead and other ordinances to be performed therein, Joseph Smith to expound on his doctrinal views concerning the necessity for baptisms for the dead.  His writings from 1842 on this subject are found in a letter he wrote to the church which was later canonized in D&C 128.  The passages related to baptisms for the dead are found in D&C 128:12, 16-18.4  It is noteworthy that, unlike most other sections of the D&C,  Joseph did not purport the writings in this section to be a revelation from God.5  Instead, D&C 128 is a mere letter to the church that Joseph wrote, in which he argues his scriptural views.  It’s also evident from verse 16 that Paul’s one-verse offhand remark from 1 Corinthians 15:29, quoted in the first paragraph of this essay, forms the doctrinal foundation for Joseph’s linking of baptism for the dead to the larger grand gospel plan of salvation.

How is it possible that Joseph Smith, the man who used the seer stones to produce the Book of Mormon text, could misinterpret biblical scripture, and teach his interpretations as the very word of God?  Because, very simply, he didn’t do his homework, and there was no one left in the church by 1842 who dared tell him that his scriptural knowledge was insufficient to support what he was now teaching.  Isaiah had described him accurately by referring to “him who is not learned.”  (See Isa. 29:12.)  Joseph misunderstood a great deal of what he read in the Bible, and forgot much of what he’d read in the Book of Mormon.  He seems to have forgotten all of Moroni 8.   Not only did he ignore Moroni’s teachings on whom baptism is for, but he had already instituted as a new commandment the baptism of eight-year-olds, who are little children.  This violated the clear teaching of Moroni 8 as well, which scrupulously avoids setting any specific age for baptism, instead teaching that parents should be baptized, not their little children. See Moroni 8:10, 11.

Joseph also forgot in his later years in Nauvoo, when the idea of baptizing for the dead began to take shape, what he himself had previously taught in 1836. He forgot that he had already claimed that his brother Alvin, who had never in his mortal life been baptized, was already in the celestial kingdom of God (which Mormonism teaches is the highest level of heavenly glory), without any person ever having been baptized for him.  As Joseph had explained, this was because God knew Alvin would have received the gospel had he been permitted to tarry on earth long enough to get baptized.  (See D&C 137: 1-8.)  No baptism for the dead had been performed for Alvin in 1836, because Joseph Smith hadn’t even thought of the idea, let alone instituted the practice, nor had he claimed to have had a revelation on said point.  Even though the Kirtland temple was built during this time, no baptism for the dead were performed therein.  So Alvin, and all other good people (see D&C 138: 8-9) were heirs of the celestial kingdom, according to Joseph Smith, without the need of either live baptism or vicarious baptism for the dead.  But by 1842, Joseph had forgotten what he’d said six years earlier.  This forgetting of his own previous teachings happened a lot during Joseph’s life, which is why Mormonism today contains so many contradictory beliefs. It’s also one of the perplexing problems this website exists to address and illuminate.

Arguments of LDS Apologists

Even if the LDS belief in baptism for the dead weren’t contradicted by Book of Mormon teachings, arguments by LDS apologists defending the practice would still face serious difficulties.  Several of them claim that baptism for the dead was a secret practice of the early church which was too sacred to be revealed, but can’t logically explain why it would be any more secret or sacred than baptism of live individuals.  If both are essential for salvation of the earth’s inhabitants, both teachings would of course be of equal sacredness, and discussing one would necessarily involve discussing the other.

Apologists also face this question:  If Jesus freely discussed and mandated baptism of live individuals, as we know he did (Matt. 28: 19, 3 Nephi 27: 20), why would he never be recorded as having taught baptism for dead individuals, since it was equally important, and would save far more people than live baptisms would?  Why would Jesus omit such an important teaching, unless it wasn’t  part of his gospel in the first place?

Third, how can it be argued that this teaching and practice was kept secret, while at the same time trying to show that it was NOT kept secret in the writings of early church scholars, and by Paul himself?  When God wants something kept secret, why does he allow it to be commonly  taught, as apologists claim?

One apologist friend of the author’s has argued that baptism for the dead was obviously taught to the Brother of Jared, then made part of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.  But how could someone be confident of this, when we have no idea what was in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, and don’t know what specific things the Lord told the brother of Jared, other than that which Moroni recorded?  Any time one argues something took place while admitting no record of what took place has been revealed, he’s not just on thin ice—he’s fallen through it.

Similarly, what is the point of having a sealed portion of the BoM, if the sealed, secret words get revealed anyway, as some allege occurred with baptism for the dead?

Sixth, since the Book of Mormon teaches that only people who have proven themselves righteous will get to have the contents of the sealed portion revealed to them (3 Nephi 26: 8-11), why would Mormonism publicly teach baptism for the dead to the whole world, regardless of the degree of righteousness of the audience?

Seventh, if baptism for the dead was one of the things shown to the brother of Jared, and thereafter sealed up to be kept secret until a certain time when the righteous were deserving of it, why didn’t Joseph Smith say so?  Joseph Smith himself never taught this doctrine to be part of what was taught to the brother of Jared.

Eighth, if baptism for the dead is one of the plain and precious parts of the gospel which was almost totally removed from the New Testament, why didn’t the Book of Mormon restore it?  Nephi specifically taught that we could find out what plain and precious parts of the gospel had been removed from the Bible by reading those teachings in the Nephites’ records, which would restore them.  1 Nephi 13: 40.

Ninth, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to the Gentiles, and then to the remnant of the house of Israel, is described as both groups receiving “the fulness of the gospel” in 3 Nephi 20: 28, 30.  This cannot be referring to the Gentiles receiving the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, because verse 28 speaks of the Gentiles rejecting that fulness, which we already know won’t happened with the sealed portion.  So, how could the BoM be described by Jesus as “the fulness of the gospel” if it’s missing such an extremely essential part of the gospel as apologists claim baptism for the dead to be?

Tenth, why would our current LDS practice require all baptisms for the dead to only be performed in the temple by “Melchizedek Priesthood” authority, when we know anciently neither temples nor Melchizedek priesthood were involved?

Some Mormon scholars have attempted to bolster the historical legitimacy for baptisms for the dead by reference to early patristic and apocryphal writings showing the practice existed among some small groups of Christians.  See, e.g.,  here.  In so doing, said scholars begin with the supposition that Joseph Smith’s teachings could not have been in error, and then set out to corroborate him with scattered writings from after the death of the apostles.  But it is the Book of Mormon’s purpose, not that of the patristic fathers’ or apocryphal writings’ purpose, to supply us with the plain and precious teachings missing from the Bible.  If the Apocrypha or writings of early Catholic fathers were the source to which we should look, the Book of Mormon would have said so, but it said the opposite.  But even we were to attach more weight  to apocryphal writings, from my own reading of them, I would still interpret them differently than Mormon scholars have done.  Those scholars make reference to apocryphal sources such as The Shepherd of Hermas, Epistula Apostolorum or the Gospel of Nicodemus to support Mormonism’s current practice of baptism for the dead.  But some early Christian scholars who discussed Paul’s one-verse reference to baptism for the dead seem to agree that it is closely related to other statements he made in other epistles.  I happen to agree with them on this point, and feel that the key to understanding 1 Corinthians 15:29 lies in comparing it to three other Pauline scriptures.

This Author’s Theory on What Paul Might Have Meant

These other scriptures seem to suggest the idea of baptisms being  performed not only to signal an acceptance of Christ’s gospel, but in a specific, symbolic way so as to memorialize the Christian belief, stated by Paul, that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” See 1 Cor. 15:22.  Consider another similar statement by Paul found in Romans 6, which utilizes the same words and concepts, italicized and boldfaced below, as those set forth in 1 Corinthians 15:29, only in a different and more understandable combination:

3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

This scripture speaks of Christian believers being baptized for the purpose of memorializing Christ’s death, thereby symbolizing our own physical and spiritual deaths. It teaches that not only should we memorialize and symbolize Christ’s death, but we must also allow our old man, i.e., our old, sinful self, to die.  If we do,  just as Christ rose from the dead, we too shall rise from the dead, both temporally and spiritually.   This scripture therefore seems to have the three same main elements as 1 Corinthians 15:29–baptizing for some purpose related to death or the dead and the resurrection.

The second epistle of Paul wherein this same concept of baptism, death and the resurrection being interrelated is repeated is Colossians 2:12, 13, wherein Paul writes that we are–

Buried with [Christ] in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.

In light of these two scriptures, I proffer the following possible interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:29, keeping in mind that the verse is an English translation of a short, cryptically worded piece of Pauline esoterica written in Greek (with concepts shared with the previously quoted scriptures in italics and boldface):  “Otherwise, what would they do who baptize in such a manner as to symbolize the physical death of the body, and the permanent spiritual death that results from it, if there were no resurrection to save the dead from such a fate?    Why would they then perform baptisms which symbolize people dying?”

Even if one accepts that what Paul was describing in 1 Cor. 15: 29 referred to a then-current practice of performing vicarious baptisms for the dead by proxy (a proposition which is by no means universally accepted among scholars), other facts weigh against the conclusion that he was endorsing vicarious baptisms performed on behalf of deceased persons.  Virtually every biblical scholar, both ancient and modern, agrees that baptism for the dead was never practiced within the mainstream Christian church, and was never taught or advocated by any apostle or disciple mentioned in the New Testament.   It’s entirely possible that Paul was referring in 1 Cor. 15:29 to people who, in their baptismal ceremonies, made special reference to the doctrines taught in 1 Cor. 15:22, Romans 6:3-6 and Col. 2:12-13, quoted above.

Most scholars cite Tertullian’s writings to show that the practice of vicarious baptisms for  dead persons was practiced at latest by the late 2nd Century A.D.  However, this argument, while true, doesn’t help demonstrate that the practice was well-accepted among Christians; it does the opposite.  Tertullian condemned the idea of baptism for the dead as heretical, writing in 207 or 208 AD.  In “Against Marcion” 10, he wrote that the proper interpretation of 1 Cor. 15: 29 was that it concerned the idea of being baptized for the body which was destined to die and rise again.  He made clear that Marcion, a cult leader who practiced baptism for the dead, but didn’t even believe in the resurrection from the dead, was far removed from actual Christian doctrine and practice.  All Christian scholars accept that Marcion was apostate, and his denial of the resurrection constituted good evidence of that, despite the fact that he may have enjoyed a sizable following.  So, the fact that the Marcionites engaged in baptisms for the dead certainly isn’t evidence of it being practiced in the early church.

About a century after Tertullian, scholar John Chrysostom, writing in Homily XL of his Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (available free of charge online), explained that what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 15: 29 was an accepted practice among Christians for the convert to say these words immediately before descending into the water:  “I believe in the resurrection of the dead,” whereupon the baptism would be performed to symbolize death and resurrection.  This explanation of why Paul might have worded that one little verse the way he did seems entirely plausible to me, much more so than the Book-of-Mormon-contradicting and uncorroborated explanation that Joseph Smith came up with when he decided to expound on those words eleven years after the LDS church was founded.

A final word:  Our habit in Mormonism to accept without questioning Joseph Smith’s teachings on biblical subjects has often led us to have less biblical understanding than mainstream Christians of other churches.  Notice how much doctrinal structure we Mormons have built on a few, awkwardly worded and cryptic words from Peter, found in 1 Peter 3: 18-20:

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in he days Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

Christian scholars interpret this scripture to demonstrate that the group Jesus taught in the spirit prison (which is itself another term  not found elsewhere in the Bible or Book of Mormon) is a very small, narrowly defined group; it appears to be the same souls who are described in Genesis 6: 1-5, who were sons of God who should have known better than to copulate with the daughters of men.6  But if it were an important part of the gospel to understand this scripture, assuming Peter knew what he was talking about, I believe Jesus would have expounded on it perhaps in the Bible, but certainly in the Book of Mormon.  But he didn’t.  When Joseph Smith did start expounding on it, there was again no one left in the early LDS Church who dared challenge his understanding of it; they’d already left.  Predictably, the doctrine which resulted from Joseph Smith’s interpretation was at odds with Alma’s teachings in Alma 40 of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph appears not to have remembered.  It’s up to us now to do the homework and research such doctrines, intellectually and spiritually, before we accept and teach ideas built on such insubstantial scriptural foundations.

FOOTNOTES

  1. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th edition, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 2021.
  2. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Ronald F. Youngblood, Gen. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), p. 160
  3. Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010), p. 1646
  4. For the author’s thought on Joseph’s misinterpretations of scriptures found in these verses, see Erroneous LDS teachings from the Doctrine and Covenants and LDS Church History Regarding Elijah and Redeeming the Dead elsewhere on this website.
  5. It’s also interesting to note that in the LDS Church’s published 1842 personal history of Joseph Smith (see Joseph Smith—History 1:36-39 in The Pearl of Great Price) Moroni is reported as having quoted Malachi 4: 5-6 differently to Joseph than the way Joseph himself quotes Malachi in D&C 128: 17. The Church history version is also different from the way Jesus himself quoted the same verses from Malachi in 3rd Nephi 25:5, 6. The Church’s 1842 version also differs from Joseph’ own original 1835 version of Moroni’s visit, as told to Oliver Cowdery, in which he didn’t claim Moroni had quoted Malachi at all. (See Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, pp. 78-80, February 1835.) It thus appears that for some reason, the LDS Church’s 1842 history of Joseph Smith supplements Moroni’s words and adds things the angel didn’t actually say when he visited Joseph in 1823, unless Jesus was quoted incorrectly in the Book of Mormon when he repeated Malachi’s words, and unless Joseph’s accounts in the Messenger and Advocate and in D&C 128 are both in error.
  6. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Ibid., p. 2130

The Momentous First Recorded Founding of the Church of Christ Before Jesus’s Birth

(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.”

The Initial Loss of the Gospel of Christ among the Nephites

It appears that for some reason, the teachings of Christ and his gospel died out among the Nephites at some point after Nephi’s and Jacob’s deaths.  It might have been a century later, less than that, or more than that, but it appears to have happened.  The two men had taught about Christ’s mission, his philosophy, the need to repent of one’s sins, and the process of being baptized and receiving the Holy Ghost .  Though no actual baptisms during their time are specifically recorded, it’s obvious the same teachings that would later define the church of Christ were well understood while they were alive.  But it appears that after Nephi’s death, Jacob and Joseph, who had been consecrated priests and teachers, struggled to keep the people living the gospel of Christ, and the problem grew in succeeding generations.  About four centuries later, by the time of King Benjamin’s address concerning the coming of Christ to the Nephites and Mulekites in Zarahemla, it’s clear the king was now declaring new information of which neither he nor his people had been previously aware.  I draw this conclusion from three facts:

First, Benjamin introduces his Mosiah 3 sermon on Christ by stating that an angel had appeared unto him as he slept, in an answer to his prayers, saying that he had come “to declare unto you the glad tidings of great joy.”  The angel proceeds to preach the gospel of Christ to Benjamin, which Benjamin would have already been familiar with if he’d read the small plates of Nephi. The angel’s words comprise the whole rest of the chapter from verse 3 through verse 27. The effect on the people of hearing the angel’s words in Benjamin’s speech is dramatic; they fall to the earth, overcome by the things they’ve just heard, and overwhelmed by the goodness of God toward them in being willing to come to earth and die for them.  Both the words of the angel in introducing his message, and the people’s reaction when hearing the angel’s words, indicate the message was new and momentous.

Second, Mormon tells us that after the last person to write on the small plates, Amaleki, finished the record, he gave the plates to Benjamin, who added them to the records on the large plates that had already been kept by the kings from the time of Nephi.  Words of Mormon 1:10.  Mormon doesn’t say Benjamin read the small plates, but only that he added them to the already-voluminous records he already possessed.  In fact, it’s logical that the reason the angel needed to come to Benjamin was because the king wasn’t familiar with what was on the small plates.  This conclusion is also borne out by the point made in the next paragraph.

That third point is that Mormon himself wasn’t even aware the small plates existed until he’d already abridged the entire record of the Nephites on the large plates.  He’d read all the prophecies and sermons among the Nephites over the past 950 years, but hadn’t read any quotations of the word of Lehi, Nephi and Jacob found in the small plates.  At the last minute, so to speak, he discovered the small plates, read them, and was pleased because of all the prophecies about Christ and the last days contained upon them.  See Words of Mormon 3-6. Mormon sensed great value in the small plates,”for they are choice unto me”, he said, and this value Benjamin would also have sensed had he read them.

The lessons we learn from this are twofold.  First, the consequences of failing to read all our ancient scriptures can change the course of an entire civilization or culture, depriving it of vital treasures of spiritual and historical knowledge.  How incomplete the Book of Mormon would be today if Mormon hadn’t come across the plates that constitute what we now know as First and Second Nephi!

Second, even very good men, like King Benjamin obviously was, can make the mistake of assuming that the religious and historical writings they’re familiar with contain all the gospel understanding they need, and that the more ancient writings are less relevant.  Had King Benjamin known that what the angel eventually told him during that fateful night was already written on the small plates of Nephi, which he himself possessed, he doubtlessly would have done all within his power to read them.  (We acknowledge the strong possibility, however, that King Benjamin lacked the ability to read the writing on the small plates of Nephi, given the likelihood that unlike his son Mosiah, he had received no interpreters with which to do so, and that the written language on those plates had undergone much change over the centuries of mixing with other peoples in the New World.)  He and many of his predecessors had, in effect, been in the same situation as his Lamanite brethren; they were lacking the writings they most needed to read and understand.  Similarly, we should always ask ourselves whether our church leaders, and we ourselves, have likewise ignored ancient scriptures in favor of less valuable latter writings.

(Note: This essay pertains only to the loss and restoration of the knowledge of Christ’s gospel among  the Nephites.  It does not treat the subject of the actual first reported full-fledged founding of the Church of Christ among the Nephites, which occurred after Alma’s embrace of Abinadi’s message.  A separate essay on the formal founding of the Church of Christ by Alma is found on this website under the title “The Momentous First Recorded Founding of the Church of Christ before Jesus’s Birth.”

Why the “Lines of Priesthood Authority” Concept is Missing from the Book of Mormon, and How Authority was Obtained to Found the First Known Church of Christ

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.)