Churches of anticipation: Alma and John

[Author’s note: Hugh Nibley first used the phrase “churches of anticipation” with regards to Alma et alis back in the 1950s. I had forgotten that until recently re-reading his writings on the Book of Mormon. 01/31/2012]

There is a curious religious transition that occurs among the Nephites about a century before the birth of Christ. Up until then, the Nephites appear to have been following the law of Moses, in spite of a clear and unprecedented Christology introduced by Lehi1, Nephi1 and Jacob in the 5th century BC and re-emphasized by King Benjamin around 124 BC just before he abdicated in favor of his son Mosiah2. And even though Nephi1 clearly indicated the need for baptism in following the Savior’s (future) example, there is no record of baptism being practiced for roughly half a millennium afterwards. Instead, the Nephite civilization during that time appears to be a continual kingship with prophets calling the people to repentance.

Those two traditions appear to merge with King Mosiah1, “being warned of the lord”, leading a Nephite exodus from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla. Mosiah1 continues as a prophet/king, interpreting the Jaredite (stone) engravings “by the gift and power of God.” His son, King Benjamin, clearly continues as a prophet/king; as noted above, he has a significant vision of the coming Messiah and puts his people under covenant to take upon themselves the name of Christ — though still with no mention of baptism. Mosiah2 appears to continue that prophet/king tradition, though there is less indication of any revelation or prophecy on his part (however, see Mosiah 21:28).

Meanwhile, back during the reign of King Benjamin, a group of Nephites led by (soon-to-be-King) Zeniff goes back to the land of Nephi (twice, actually) and settles there under agreement with the Lamanites, though relations break down. It is unclear what religious organization or government this group operated under Zeniff’s reign; however, upon Zeniff’s death, his son and successor Noah appears to assume some degree of ‘religious’ leadership along with a set of corrupt priests (including Alma1). Then Abinadi comes out of the blue and calls Noah, his priests, and his people to repentance. He vanishes for two years (where to? Zarahemla? the Lamanites?), then comes back and has his great confrontation with King Noah and his priests and preaches the coming of Christ (roughly contemporaneously with King Benjamin’s discourse). This leads to Abinadi’s death by fire. Alma1, stung to repentance, pleads for Abinadi’s life and is forced to flee for his own. He hides out by the waters of Mormon and gathers followers there.

And then Alma1 introduces baptism.

Baptism may well have existed among the Nephites prior to this time, but if it did, there is no mention of it in the Book of Mormon. [CORRECTION: As ‘cougartex’ points out in the comments below, Jacob — while Nephi is still alive — does tell the Nephites that they need to be be baptized (2 Nephi 9:23). However, there is no mention of baptism after that point until Alma1 starts practicing it.] It is only when both groups of Nephites (under Kings Benjamin and Noah) have the imminent coming of Christ preached to them that baptism appears as an ordinance among them. And word of this practice apparently filtered back to the Noah/Limhi community, since they were aware of the baptisms practiced by Alma1. King Limhi was also aware or believed that none of his people had authority to conduct baptisms; likewise, Ammon felt himself unauthorized or unworthy to conduct baptisms (cf. Mosiah 21:32-35).

Now the interesting part occurs after both Limhi’s and Alma1‘s groups make it back to Zarahemla. Mosiah2 — himself the son and grandson of prophets and apparently having prophetic gifts of his own — defers to Alma1, asking him to address the now-combined groups of Nephites (Zarahemla, Limhi, Alma1) and giving him authority to establish “churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and . . . to ordain priests and teachers over every church.” Alma1 baptizes all those who repent and desire to join “the church of God” and indeed that becomes a requirement for membership (cf. Mosiah 26:21-22).

Alma1‘s wayward son, Alma2, after his own Paul-like conversion experience, ends up inheriting both the government (as chief judge, replacing Mosiah2) and the church of God (as high priest, replacing his father Alma1). However, it is clear that there are problems both within the church and between the church members and those not of the church. Alma2 ends up resigning the chief judgeship in order to focus on putting the church in order among all the Nephite cities, even as the sons of Mosiah2 are preaching the coming of Christ and baptism among the Lamanites.

There are interesting parallels between what Alma1, Alma2, and sons of Mosiah2 did in the New World and what John the Baptist did in the Old World:

  • Baptism does not occur in the scriptural record prior to this time, though no one seems terribly surprised by the ordinance itself.
  • No scriptural indication is given of how either John or Alma1 receive the authority to baptism, but again, no one seems to question that authority.
  • Both John and Alma1 preach repentance and baptism in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of Heaven
  • The appearance of both John and Alma1 signals an abrupt break from the law of Moses/priestly tradition to a church of anticipation.

There are clear differences as well. For example, while John had disciples, there’s no indication of subordinate “teachers and priests”; on the flip side, Alma2 clearly talks about the Holy Spirit being with the church (cf. Alma 5:46, 54), while John preaches of the coming of “baptism by fire”. Nevertheless, while reading the preachings of Alma2 to the Nephites, I hear echoes of John among the Jews and wish that we had John’s records the way that we have Alma2‘s.

UPDATE (03/15/08):  Here’s a follow-up post on the this subject.  ..bruce..

8 thoughts on “Churches of anticipation: Alma and John

  1. What about all of Nephi’s talk of baptism in 2 Nephi 9:23 and 2 Nephi 31:11-17? Despite the nitpick, I agree that Alma (especially) preaches with a strong sense of anticipation. He is always telling his audience to look forward to Christ (Alma 4:14; 5:15; 7:6; 13:2,16; 25:15; 32:40-41). I think there is a great lesson for modern Saints in the power of anticipation.

  2. Actually, that’s exactly my point (go back and read the first paragraph): in spite of Nephi’s clear statements, there is no mention whatsoever in the Book of Mormon of baptism being practiced until Alma1 introduces it over 400 years later. One would expect Jacob or King Benjamin to cite it in their respective discourses calling the Nephites to repent and covenant with God, but they do not. It is particularly telling in Benjamin’s discourse; he preaches Christ and puts the people under a covenant to take upon themselves Christ’s name, but there is no mention of baptism.

    My personal theory is that the Nephites, like the Israelites in the Old World, were living under the law of Moses — and under that law, they did not practice baptism unto repentance. Instead, covenant status and repentance was established via circumcision and Mosaic temple ordinances, respectively. But in both the Old and New Worlds, God called a forerunner prophet to (re)establish baptism unto repentance as a precursor to the Savior’s mortal ministry. In the Old World, that was John the Baptist; in the New World, it was Alma1. As I note above, there are some differences between Alma’s and John’s ministries (particularly regarding the presence of the Holy Ghost), but there are striking similarities as well. ..bruce..

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