Mosiah 26:1-14 — LeGrand Baker — enforcing goodness
There is an untold story here that I think is very sad. It is a profoundly insightful look into human nature, where the authority of one group to impose “goodness” collides with the desire of another group to be independent.
King Benjamin seems to have foreseen the coming problems, for when he laid out what appears to have been a new economic system for his government, he said,
And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. (Mosiah 4: 26)
He required that everyone who was old enough that they would covenant to implement these instructions. That suggests to me that he may have been establishing something like the law of consecration. But in doing so he also gave this important charge:
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order. (Mosiah 4: 27)
To ensure that his instructions would be carried out, he also made another innovation in the kingdom’s hierarchy. He made his son king, even before his own death, and also,
…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)
That is an interesting description of the authority of these new priests. It implies that they had some power to enforce the goodness they had accepted by covenant.
One wonders why Mosiah was made king before his father died. There seem to be two likely reasons: (1) Benjamin was ill and wanted to be relieved of the responsibilities. (2) Benjamin wanted to make sure his son got it right before the old king died. Apparently It worked for a while.
6 And it came to pass that king Mosiah did walk in the ways of the Lord, and did observe his judgments and his statutes, and did keep his commandments in all things whatsoever he commanded him.
7 And king Mosiah did cause his people that they should till the earth. And he also, himself, did till the earth, that thereby he might not become burdensome to his people, that he might do according to that which his father had done in all things. And there was no contention among all his people for the space of three years.
So his father’s system lasted only three years after the king died. Mormon tells nothing at all about the nature of the contention. All we know is that Benjamin had given the authority to enforce the system to a new group of priests (as in the story of King Noah, the word “priests” probably denotes a the members of the King’s Council. If that is so, then these men would have had the authority to make laws to help “stir them up in remembrance of the oath.” Mosiah may not have been very active in the government, for he “did till the earth, that thereby he might not become burdensome to his people.”
Rather than telling us about the contentions, Mormon tells something else that happened at the same time.
1 And now, it came to pass that after king Mosiah had had continual peace for the space of three years, he was desirous to know concerning the people who went up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi, or in the city of Lehi-Nephi; for his people had heard nothing from them from the time they left the land of Zarahemla; therefore, they wearied him with their teasings.
2 And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted that sixteen of their strong men might go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi, to inquire concerning their brethren. (Mosiah 7:1-2.)
That is the last we hear of Mosiah or the happenings in his kingdom until the people of Limhi arrived, and “ Mosiah received them with joy.” (Mosiah 22:14) After that, still nothing until Alma and his people arrived, “and king Mosiah did also receive them with joy.” (Mosiah 24:25.)
After Alma arrived, “Mosiah did read, and caused to be read, the records of Zeniff …And he also read the account of Alma and his brethren…” (Mosiah 25:5-6)
14 And now it came to pass that when Mosiah had made an end of speaking and reading to the people, he desired that Alma should also speak to the people.
15 And Alma did speak unto them, when they were assembled together in large bodies, and he went from one body to another, preaching unto the people repentance and faith on the Lord.
16 And he did exhort the people of Limhi and his brethren, all those that had been delivered out of bondage, that they should remember that it was the Lord that did deliver them.
17 And it came to pass that after Alma had taught the people many things, and had made an end of speaking to them, that king Limhi was desirous that he might be baptized; and all his people were desirous that they might be baptized also.
18 Therefore, Alma did go forth into the water and did baptize them… (Mosiah 25: 14- 18a)
There is a strange matter of protocol here. In the ancient Near East (and it is evident by what Mosiah does next that it holds true in this American offshoot of that culture) the King is the official mediator between man and God. Yet in this instance a king who is a guest of Mosiah, seeks baptism from someone other than Mosiah. This happens before Mosiah divides his authority between himself and Alma, so at this point Mosiah is still the one who ought to have been acknowledged as the religious leader. After that,
19 And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church.
20 Now this was done because there were so many people that they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly;
21 Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma.
22 And thus, notwithstanding there being many churches they were all one church, yea, even the church of God; for there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God.
23 And now there were seven churches in the land of Zarahemla. And it came to pass that whosoever were desirous to take upon them the name of Christ, or of God, they did join the churches of God;
24 And they were called the people of God. And the Lord did pour out his Spirit upon them, and they were blessed, and prospered in the land. Mosiah 25: 19-24)
Mosiah has by these acts completely departed from the system established by his father. Not only had he given Alma part of his own royal authority, but he had also stripped his father’s priests of their authority by giving Alma “ power to ordain priests and teachers over every church.” The extent of this political revolution is emphisized by the fact that Alma’s followers made a new covenant, and again took “upon them the name of Christ” when they joined Alma’s church.
It is not until we get to chapter 26 that we learn something about what those contentions were, and what had been going on in the kingdom to convince Mosiah that he must literally abandon half of his royal prerogatives as king. For one thing, the children who were subjected to the enforcing authority of Benjamin’s priests rebelled.
Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers. (Mosiah 26: 1)
By the time our story picks up again, these children were adults, just as Alma was. Not only had they refused to conform to the rules of Benjamin’s covenant, but “they were a separate people as to their faith,” and had organized their own religion in opposition to the king and his priests.
2 They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ.
3 And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.
4 And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God.
5 And now in the reign of Mosiah they were not half so numerous as the people of God; but because of the dissensions among the brethren they became more numerous.
There is a transition here, so we are now talking about their effect on Alma’s church.
6 For it came to pass that they did deceive many with their flattering words, who were in the church, and did cause them to commit many sins; therefore it became expedient that those who committed sin, that were in the church, should be admonished by the church.
7 And it came to pass that they were brought before the priests, and delivered up unto the priests by the teachers; and the priests brought them before Alma, who was the high priest.
Now we see the final and conclusive transfer of ecclesiastical power from the king to Alma. 8 Now king Mosiah had given Alma the authority over the church.
9 And it came to pass that Alma did not know concerning them; but there were many witnesses against them; yea, the people stood and testified of their iniquity in abundance.
10 Now there had not any such thing happened before in the church; therefore Alma was troubled in his spirit, and he caused that they should be brought before the king.
11 And he said unto the king: Behold, here are many whom we have brought before thee, who are accused of their brethren; yea, and they have been taken in divers iniquities. And they do not repent of their iniquities; therefore we have brought them before thee, that thou mayest judge them according to their crimes.
12 But king Mosiah said unto Alma: Behold, I judge them not; therefore I deliver them into thy hands to be judged. (Mosiah 26: 2-12)
Two things are important there: one is that they are charged with “divers iniquities” but we are not told what those iniquities were. The second is that whatever they had done wrong was contrary to civil law. If their crimes had been something like theft or murder, then the king would have abdicated his throne altogether by turning there judgement over to Alma. But there is no evidence that was the case.
13 And now the spirit of Alma was again troubled; and he went and inquired of the Lord what he should do concerning this matter, for he feared that he should do wrong in the sight of God. (Mosiah 26: 13)
God’s response was that Alma should excommunicate those who did not repent.
From this part of the story, two things appear: First, The civil crimes for which they were accused were in fact religious crimes. That leads to the second, which is that in an attempt “to stir them up in remembrance of the oath” the kings new system of priests had attempted to enforce goodness through legislation. The result was that the children who grew up under the strict regulations of that system, rebelled and altogether turned away from King Benjamin’s covenant.
Apparently, in their zeal to succeed, the king’s new order of priests had overlooked the key to success that King Benjamin had given them:
27 And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order. (Mosiah 4: 27)
It seems to be the nature of almost all people who have defined “goodness” for themselves, and who have authority, to codify that goodness into rules that they can impose upon the lives of others. Sometimes that enforcement is attempted by government; sometimes by subculture; sometimesbyfamily. And it seems to be the nature of almost all people,whentheyare confronted with rules of behavior that are too rigid and too restrictive – rules that permit no wiggle room – when the rules of enforced “goodness” violate one’s sense of agency and Self – then it is in the innate inclination of almost everyone is to look for some other way. That seems to be the story of the children who were too young to understand King Benjamin’s covenant.
Civil and criminal law are designed to protect people from other people who would hurt them. That works if the legal system works. Law can force people to ACT honestly, but law can never change people’s hearts and force them to BE good. When one group of people, who define the outward forms of their own goodness as the only acceptable outward forms, try to take away the agency of other people by imposing those forms of goodness upon them, there can be only one consequence: both groups suffer because the people who call themselves good begin to act like tyrants, and the others are not taught what goodness really is. Even if they are compelled to hear the words of the teaching, they are not truly taught because the very nature of goodness is obscured by the reality of its enforcement. When cultural sin takes on an aspect more important than real sin, true doctrines get lost in a power struggle that happens within the souls of people in both groups of people. The enforcers begin to fear they are losing control, and that fear causes them to be more vigorous in their enforcement because the system has become more important to them than the doctrine. Consequently the people on whom goodness is imposed rebel against the system, but because they have not been taught to separate the system from the doctrine, they rebel against the doctrine also. They try to define their own “goodness” outside the rigors of the system – and thus outside the doctrine also. Apostasy overtakes both camps because neither adhere to the truth any more.
There is a universal truth about both ancient and modern systems of religion: No matter how correct its doctrine may have been in its beginning, no structured goodness can be used to take away the agency of its adherents, to the degree it does that, or seeks to do that, the religion of the enforcers ceases to be good.
Perhaps King Mosiah’s greatest contribution was that he recognized that apostasy in his own people, and turned the powers of state religion over to Alma who was more concerned with freeing the people from real sin than from cultural sin.