As Latter-day Saints, we tend to be locked into the narrative of our own history, namely: Christ’s mortal ministry in Palestine; the eventual apostasy of the Christian churches; and the restoration of the Church in the early 19th century, some 1500 years later. On top of that, our overall view of human history tends to be dispensationalist: Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and so forth. Finally, we tend to think of restorations as “all at once” (again, looking at the model of our own restoration). For those three reasons, I think it is easy for us to overlook shorter, more subtle cycles of apostasy and restoration.
While we commonly talk about the up-and-down cycle of the Nephites, we usually assume that there was nevertheless an unbroken line of prophetic leadership, priesthood authority and church organization from Nephi through Moroni. From a careful reading of the Book of Mormon, I am not sure that was the case at all. I think there are at least five (5) places where a restoration occurs in the Book of Mormon. Each restoration involves a divine intervention to restore doctrine, authority, ordinances and/or church organization. In each case, some remnant of the previous ‘church’ and its doctrine still existed, but that shouldn’t surprise us: our own Restoration took place in a world filled with Christian churches following the Bible, practicing ordinances and preaching doctrines that the Restored Church practices and preaches as well.
More after the jump.
First Nephite Restoration: Lehi and Nephi
This is the obvious one, but it’s worth examining because it lays the groundwork for what happens through the rest of the Book of Mormon record. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) had been invaded and carried away by Assyria about 120 years earlier. The Southern Kingdom (Judah) has been invaded by Babylon once, and Zechariah placed on the throne. However, Babylon is about to invade a second time and carry the Jews back to Babylon with them. The Jewish political and religious leadership has become corrupt; prophets such as Jeremiah and Lehi are seen as worthy of captivity or death. Lehi flees with his family; in the desert, both he and Nephi have prophetic visions and angelic visitations regarding the coming of Christ and establishing the need for faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost (vs. the Mosaic ordinances).
Leaving aside the Laman/Nephi split, the seeds of apostasy start sprouting pretty much upon Nephi’s death. Jacob calls the Nephites — and likely, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the new Nephite king — to repentance. The sparse record we have after that indicates a gradual downward trend, though 200 years in, there still appears to be a central functioning religious authority and structure (cf. Jarom 1:11). Later on, the book of Omni has a reference to “the more wicked part of the Nephites [being] destroyed” (Omni 1:5-7), but things still appear to be going downhill, eventually resulting yet another Nephite exodus.
What is interesting in here is that after the extensive Christology preached by Nephi and Jacob, there is little mention of Christ and no mention at all of baptism for the next 400 years (again, recognizing the record is sparse). Jacob’s son Enos has a personal conversion to Christ (Enos 1:5-8); his son Jarom talks about the law of Moses leading the Nephites to “look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was.” (Jarom 1:11). And then no further mention of Christ occurs until Abinadom — a contemporary of Benjamin and a likely attendee at Benjamin’s great address — mentions it at the end of his own record and his own life (Omni 1:25-26).
Second Nephite Restoration: Mosiah1/Benjamin
In a pattern nearly very reminiscent of Lehi/Nephi, we have Mosiah1 (father of King Benjamin) being “warned of the Lord to flee out of the land of Nephi..into the wilderness”; he and those who followed him “were led by many preachings and prophesyings…and by the power of [God's] arm” until they came to Zarahemla (Omni 1:12-13). Mosiah1 clearly has some prophetic gifts, as he translates the “large stone…with [Jaredite] engravings upon it…by the gift and power of God” (Omni 1:20). Our details on this exodus and the arrival at Zarahemla are very sparse (lacking the Book of Lehi and, apparently, the first two chapters of Mosiah), but the Nephites — who are fewer in number than the Zarahemlites — impose (or are asked to impose) their leadership, language, and religion upon the Zarahemlites.
We do pick up with a more detailed account in Mosiah, with Benjamin announcing his abdication of the kingship in favor of his son Mosiah2 in a grand gathering of the combined Nephite/Zarahemlite nation at the temple. But then Benjamin goes on to talk about an angelic visitation in which the angel announces the future ministry and atonement of Christ (Mosiah 3). What’s curious about this is that it sounds as though it is being presented as new information to the gathered people, in spite of the rather extensive and detailed Christology set forth by Nephi and Jacob several centuries earlier. That could be in part because of the Zarahemlite portion of the audience, but it is still curious.
Having given his address, Benjamin proceeds to put the gathered people under a covenant to take upon themselves the name of Christ (Mosiah 5); however, there is no mention whatsoever of baptism, either as a requirement or being performed. Benjamin then “appointed priests to teach the people, that thereby they might hear and know the commandments of God, and to stir them up in remembrance of the oath which they had made.” (Mosiah 6:3).
Third Nephite Restoration: Abinadi/Alma1
The restorative role of Abinadi and Alma1 could be folded in with Mosiah1 and Benjamin above, except that it occurs parallel to and geographically apart from their efforts, and it eventually supplants that restoration initiated by Mosiah1 and Benjamin. Back during the reign of Mosiah1, a group of Nephites from Zarahemla wanted to go back and try to resettle in the land of Lehi-Nephi (reversing Mosiah1‘s exodus). Their leader, Zeniff, convinces the Lamanites to allow them to re-settle the land; however, after some years, the Lamanites begin to attack, which causes Zeniff and his people to “cry mightily to the Lord…for we were awakened to a remembrance of the deliverance of our fathers.” (Mosiah 9:17-18).
After Zeniff dies, his son Noah takes over as king. Noah is corrupt and wicked (unlike his father) and put in his own set of (compliant and corrupt) priests, including a young priest named Alma1. He and his priests lead the people in the wrong direction, subverting or abandoning the law of Moses.
Into that situation comes the prophet Abinadi, preaching to Noah and his people that they must repent or be brought into captivity (much like Jeremiah and Lehi). Noah seeks Abinadi’s life, and Abinadi disappears for two years (with no clue as to where). He then returns and preaches again, prophesying bondage, destruction and death if the people do not repent, and specifically prophesying death to Noah. He is taken captive and brought before Noah and his priests, where he unflinchingly rebukes them for (a) not living up to the law of Moses and (b) not believing in the coming mortal ministry and atonement of Christ, which he declares clearly and in detail.
Abinidi gets one convert — Alma1 — who pleads (unsuccessfully) for Abinadi’s life and then is forced to flee for his own life (Mosiah 16:1-4). Out in the wilderness, Alma1 begins to preach Abinadi’s words in secrecy to those who come to hear him. And then he (re)introduces baptism, actually carrying out the ordinance. This is literally the first mention of baptism in the Book of Mormon record for over 400 years, since the time of Nephi and Jacob.
It is unclear where Alma1 gets his authority to perform the baptism or his knowledge of how or why to do it. He may have had private meetings with Abinadi before or during Abinadi’s captivity (hence his pleading for Abinadi’s life), though that simply extends the question to where Abinadi got his authority and knowledge. But it’s clear from the subsequent record that Alma1 does indeed have the requisite authority, because when he and his people finally arrive in Zarahemla, King Mosiah2 (son of Benjamin) immediately defers to Alma1 and, in effect, turns over all religious authority to him (Mosiah 25; Mosiah 26:7-8).
Fourth Nephite restoration: Jesus Christ
From the time of Alma1 down to the appearance of the resurrected Savior, the Nephite record at first glance appears to indicate a continually operating priesthood authority and church. Succession in church leadership through this period goes like this: Alma1 -> Alma2 -> Helaman1 -> Helaman2 -> Nephi2 -> Nephi3 . In particular, Nephi3 preaches and ministers “with power and great authority”, baptizing those few who believe on his word, even as the church and the government itself completely collapse into tribalism (cf. 3 Nephi 6:14; 3 Nephi 7:14-18). Great destruction then comes upon the Lehites at the time of Christ’s crucifixion; some time later, the resurrected Savior Himself appears to the survivors.
He then reorganizes His church — calling twelve disciples, including Nephi3 — then gives them authority to baptize and has them baptized as well. This is as direct and explicit a restoration as any recorded in the scriptures, and this in spite of the fact that Nephi3 was preaching, baptizing, performing great miracles, and being attended by angels all before the great cataclysm (and, quite likely, after as well).
I’ve also written about this before as well, so I won’t repeat the discussion at length.
Fifth Nephite Restoration: Mormon
The total apostasy of the Nephites and Lamanites after their ‘golden age’ is pretty clear in 4 Nephi 1:45-46, stating that the Lamanites and Nephites “had become exceedingly wicked one like unto another” and that “there were none that were righteous save it were the [three transfigured] disciples of Jesus.” Ammoron, a direct descendant of Nephi3 (but see here for a discussion on the lineage) is prompted to hide up all the Nephite records. He then approaches a ten-year-old boy named Mormon, who he sees as “a sober child, and…quick to observe”, tells him where the records are buried, and asks him — when Mormon turns 24 — to dig up the records and engrave upon them “all the things that ye have observed concerning this people.” (Mormon 1:2-4).
Before that happens, though Mormon (at age 15) is visited personally by the Savior, though he is forbidden — at first — to preach (Mormon 1:15-16). Instead, he becomes the military leader of the Nephites at age 16, and that occupies most of the next few decades of his life. It is not until Mormon reaches the age of nearly 50 that he is finally commanded of the Lord to preach repentance to the Nephites — much as Lehi and Abinadi, “repent or be destroyed” — but he has little success (Mormon 3:1-3). There are, however, enough converts to build a synagogue, in which they worship (Moroni 7:1), and enough to have doctrinal disputes (Moroni 8:4-5). From the discussion of infant baptism, it’s clear that this church is practicing baptism but that the members are still learning how and when baptism is required (Mormon 8:4-12). Mormon’s son, Moroni2, likewise spends part of his life in religious ministry (Moroni 8:1-2), most likely taking over church leadership as his father returns to military leadership (Moroni 8:27). What little church comes into existence vanishes with the fall and destruction of the Nephites themselves; as Moroni2 puts it, “I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people” (Mormon 8:3).
The point of this rather lengthy post is to re-emphasize that the record in the Book of Mormon is more complex and subtle than we often give it credit for. As members of the Church, we are often prone to oversimplification of what’s actually in the record; to quote a friend from many years ago, “It’s all just good guys vs. bad guys, isn’t it?” Because of that, I believe it is always worthwhile to stop and look at what the Book of Mormon actually says, rather than what we think it says. ..bruce..