Notes on Alma, Huck and the Mourner’s Bench

Here’s an interesting passage from Mosiah 18:9, suggesting, on its face, that mourning with those who mourn is a Christian duty (which I believe):

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–(emphasis added)

A similar phrase appears in Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” At first glance, Alma’s speech seems to echo the Sermon on the Mount, literally multiplying that beatitude times two. But Mosiah 18:9 may have a closer cousin found in a touching and amusing passage from chapter 20 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

Then the preacher begun to preach, and begun in earnest, too; and went weaving first to one side of the platform and then the other, and then a-leaning down over the front of it, with his arms and his body going all the time, and shouting his words out with all his might; and every now and then he would hold up his Bible and spread it open, and kind of pass it around this way and that, shouting, “It’s the brazen serpent in the wilderness! Look upon it and live!” And people would shout out, “Glory! — A-a-MEN!” And so he went on, and the people groaning and crying and saying amen:

Oh, come to the mourners’ bench! come, black with sin! (AMEN!) come, sick and sore! (AMEN!) come, lame and halt and blind! (AMEN!) come, pore and needy, sunk in shame! (A-A-MEN!) come, all that’s worn and soiled and suffering! — come with a broken spirit! come with a contrite heart! come in your rags and sin and dirt! the waters that cleanse is free, the door of heaven stands open — oh, enter in and be at rest!” (A-A-MEN! GLORY, GLORY HALLELUJAH!) (emphasis added)

What’s a “Mourner’s bench”? Could it have anything to do with Alma’s sermon?

Apparently the first documented appearance of the mourner’s bench was in 1741 when the American minister Eleazar Wheelock started targeting “sinners” by having them sit in the front bench as he gave fiery, anxiety-inducing sermons reminiscent of those of his contemporary, Jonathan Edwards.  I’m not clear how Wheelock targeted the sinners under his care and got them to sit on the bench during the sermon–perhaps the executive secretary called them during the week before the Sunday service. In any event, this bench became known as the “mourner’s bench” or the “anxious seat.” The term “mourner” was used to refer to the sinner convicted of his sins under the Holy Spirit’s influence, the term “anxious” to her state of mind and lost condition. The call to come forward became known as the “altar call.” Not only would the anxious answer the call, but already saved Christians would frequently go to the mourner’s bench to mourn with those who mourned.

It wasn’t until the Second Great Awakening that the mourner’s bench took hold and became part and parcel of the revival experience, as well as ordinary church services for some congregations. Revivalist Charles Finney eventually perfected Wheelock’s system and used it along with other revival practices he called his “New Measures” to scorch western New York during the 1820s and 1830s and thereby create what Witney Cross called the Burned-Over District[1], Joseph Smith’s backyard and context for his First Vision.

Such an approach to Alma’s sermon in Mosiah 18:9 suggests that at a minimum, early Latter-day Saints may have interpreted this passage in the context of an altar call to the unconverted and a declaration that the converted have an obligation to assist them.

But even if early readers of the Book of Mormon may have read this and other Book of Mormon passages as favorable to revival preaching and conversion practices[2], it is clear that at least as early as the Nauvoo period and thereafter Latter-day Saints rejected such revival practices. John Taylor and Orson Pratt and others specifically criticized in public discourse and newspapers the use of the mourner’s bench and other revival practices among the Methodists on several occasions[3].

What do you think? What does “mourning with those that mourn” mean in Mosiah 18:9?

_________________________________ 

[1] His book by the same name is my main source for the 19th Century evangelical information here.

[2] See, for instance, William McLellin’s apparent use of some of Charles Finney’s “New Measures” in his Mormon preaching as reported in The Journals of William E. McLellin, p. 148 and 161 n. 53. Altar calls also often had baptismal contexts similar to Mosiah 18, as noted in the Huck Finn passage quoted above.

[3] See, for instance T&S 4: 341-42; and JD 13:16; 14:176; and 22:307.

Comments

  1. I found this post very interesting and full of information that I did not know. I enjoy being enlightened, especially about history and how things have come about. However, I must be a simpleton when it comes to interpreting this passage. To mourn with those that mourn is to lend our compassion and emotion to those who mourn. In doing so we naturally feel at least some pain along with them (if we are being sincere). Again, maybe I am being simple minded, but perhaps trying to analyze this passage too much would be looking beyond the mark.

  2. Ed Snow says:

    Yes Wes, I believe in lending compassion and emotion and that this Mosiah passage supports that. I just stumbled upon this alternative approach to this passage several years ago. It’s still related to this more general theme, really.

    But I’m also just interested in the different types of meanings passages might have, especially to 19th Century readers, the original audience of the BoM. Surely each generation brings something different to the text, and that can teach us something.

    What got me initially going down this path was reading how 19th Century Mormon readers recognized in BoM anti-Christ figures characters similar to the Universalists of the day and so described them in early BoM reference guides.

    A similar question is how Jews of the time of Jesus understood Genesis. They may have read it differently than Jews in the Exile. What does this teach us about the Jews of Jesus’ day? This “history of interpretation approach” is simply an avenue of historical understanding that I think casts light on our views today–we will become a part of that history of interpretation too.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Very interesting. Here is something I wrote once about George A. Smith’s experience with the “anxious bench”:

    Walter Scott’s six-point “Gospel Restored” is of interest to Latter-day Saints because of the resemblance it bears to the fourth Article of Faith. The elements of faith, repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost appear, in the same order, in both sources. That saving faith is readily available to all seems a deceptively simple and obvious concept to us today, but in the revivals of the time there was nothing simple about it; achieving saving faith was a great ordeal that required a tortuous experience of some kind. George A. Smith, the Prophet Joseph’s cousin, recalled the disappointment he felt when he attended a seventeen-day Congregational revival. He attended every session, but did not develop any “sensation of religion which should bring him down to the anxious bench.” When prayers and exhortations of the minister failed to bring him down, he was pronounced reprobate and “sealed up unto eternal damnation.” He later was baptized a Mormon in 1832 at age 15.23

  4. Ed Snow says:

    Kevin, was this part of a larger essay? Published?

    A couple of years ago I read Mosiah 18:8-11 to a colleague at work who grew up in a conservative church that still had a mourner’s bench. He said it sounded very close to an altar call to his ear.

  5. I find this analysis to be a desperate stretch and not because it is obscuring a simple spiritual truth, but because it’s tenuous at best.

  6. Ed Snow says:

    Lyle, I’m not desperate to find anything. It is tenuous. And it doesn’t obscure a simple truth–I said I believed in the simple truth of mourning with those that mourn at the very beginning.

    My ponderings do sometimes go down different paths. The exercise of pondering itself is a form of worship for me that leads me closer to God. I’m not claiming this is what was originally meant by the author, but a possible way its readers could have received it. There are many ways to try to find meaning in a text.

    In another post I intend to ponder the obvious reading of the text and what it has meant to me personally. That’s not what this post is about. I have found tremendous value in it as over the last few years I’ve attended several funerals of friends and family. Some of these I didn’t want to attend–to painful, but I read this passage as my duty to do so. By fulfilling this duty I experienced a wonderful closeness to God and others through tears and grief. Ultimately, that’s what it means to me, although I’m willing to entertain what it’s other meanings for others might be.

  7. Ed Snow says:

    Here’s a longer excerpt from Mosiah
    18 that’s relevant:

    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 awilling 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.

    It’s hard to explore all of this in one post, especially in a more speculative reading, such as this one.

    There are numerous phrases in the BoM that would seem to evoke a different response from a 19th Century reader than they would today. This is a relatively unexplored area of BoM studies. I find it interesting, for example, that some 19th Century readers saw the Gadianton robber sections as “anti-masonry” whereas some modern day interpreters see these passages as “anti-mob,” “anti-business” or “anti-guerilla warfare” passages. Readings of texts are shaped by the reader’s experience and time. I see no way around that. I’m convinced God is able to speak through sacred texts in spite of this.

  8. Nice. I’d forgotten all about the mourner’s bench. I’ll add three small details to the developing picture:

    1) The idea that the people of God in Mt 5:4 mourn over their own sin is common in the Fathers.

    2) A more plausible reading of the 2nd Beatitude, consistent with the overall picture of eschatological reversal running through the Beatitudes, is that the saints mourn because the kingdom has not yet come and they suffer in its absence.

    3) A key difference between Alma and the 2B is the identity of the comforter. In the 2B, the syntax reflects the divine passive and the time of comfort is the eschatological future. In Alma, we’re doing the comforting and the time is now.

    Now having said all that, it doesn’t strike me as at all impossible that the early Saints read Alma as a mourner’s bench-type reference. It’s a very interesting and relevant question.

  9. If the Mourner’s Bench is a place to put sinners on public display (motivation to repent) and Alma tells us to mourn with those that mourn, then does that mean I should sin with those that sin? Yes? Then I’m all for it. I’ll give up some of my sinless ways to sit with you on the bench.

    Heh.

    Actually I do believe in that principle though. We don’t have to go out of our way to sin, we are all sinful, all desperately needing Jesus to make something of us. My fallibility, fallen state, sinfulness does make me mourn and I know it makes others mourn also. While I don’t want to sit on a bench, being loved by and loving other sinners helps me to commune with Jesus.

  10. In modern times, of course, the “anxious bench” is reserved for those who come to sacrament meeting late. =)

    Hey, it’s not often you get to see a Huck Finn tie-in to the Book of Mormon. Congrats!

  11. Ed Snow says:

    FHL, I like your note. The more I think about it, the truth is that all benches in the chapel are mourner’s benches (going back to the plain meaning of the term). All people mourn something, openly or secretly. All have experienced loss, all deserve to have others mourn with them and we need to comfort them too.

    I for one would find the calling of “Ward Mourner” interesting. Your job would be to seek out those in need of comfort and just listen to them. “Every member a ward mourner” is what I’d expect David O’McKay to say in response.

  12. So the Ward Mourner would not be like the Catholic wake Wailer? Cuz that might be cool too, a member loudly mourning their sins.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Ed, that quote comes from a paper I wrote called “A Tale of Two Restorations,” which I presented at the 1999 FAIR Conference, comparing and contrasting the restorations of Joseph Smith and Alexander Campbell.

  14. I think the modern tendancy is to associate mourning with physical or temporal stress and not spiritual stress. I don’t know if this is a funciton of the materialistic society, but I can’t think of a popular exegisis (i.e., colloquial) that focuses on mourning with the penitant.

    I really liked the ideas outlined in this post. Despite growing up in evangelical country, I wasn’t familiar with the bench nor the call.

    Very good stuff.

  15. Amri, if what you have in mind is someone who loudly wails about the sins of others, sorry to disappoint, but that idea has already been tried. We have no shortage of people willing to fill that calling.

    Ed, I think Joseph Smith and Huck Finn go together very well. When I was twelve years old we went on vacation “back east” to Nauvoo. I am very glad my parents thought it was worthwhile to take an extra day and travel thirty miles downriver to Hannibal, MO. We rode the riverboat and hunted through the t-shirt shops. For dinner we went to a restaurant and ordered fried catfish, turnip greens, and cornbread, something very exotic to a Utah kid. It was a great experience, and I have been surprised as an adult at how much I enjoy re-reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

  16. Mark IV, I’m with you.

    I once wrote an American Lit paper at BYU comparing the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Joseph Smith, mostly focusing on the treasure digging stories. This was when rumors of the Salamander Letter were first being circulated. Remarkably, there is a lot of common ground there, especially at the end when Twain says after they found the treasure everyone with a shovel stared digging up their own backyard looking for buried loot. I guess there are two main differences: (i) Joseph claimed a prophetic calling, Sawyer didn’t (although he nearly got religion once) and (ii) well, Sawyer is a fictional character (although some of the mythologizing about Joseph comes darn near close).

  17. Whenever I read Huck’s descriptions of the revival where the King and the Duke are working the crowd, I think about Joseph Smith, Sr.’s response to the “tumult of opinions and war of words” in Palmyra. When Huck describes the widow and Miss Watson and their approaches to religion, he could have been describing the burned-over district in New York:

    Sometimes the widow would take me to one side and talk about providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe the next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there was two providences, and a chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there wasn’t no help for him anymore. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s if he wanted me, though I couldn’t make out how he was a going to be any better off than what he was before, seeing I was ignorant, and so kind of low down and awnry.

    May we all be so ignorant, low down and awnry.

  18. Amen, Bro. Mark IV, amen.

    Two other similar highlights from Huck Finn (warning: not exact quotes below, going from bad memory here):

    1. “I was all in a pinch to find out what happened to Moses and the bulrushers till she said Moses had been dead near a thousand years, then I lost interest. I ain’t that interested in dead people.”

    2. “Jim wondered why everyone said Solerman was such a wise king when he had all those wives. Why he was the most down on Solerman than any man I ever did see.”

  19. Wow, this is a fun threadjack! Two more parts of Huck Finn remind me of church. When I was in senior primary, I had a conversation with my teacher that went more or less like this:

    Miss Watson would say, “Don’t put your feet up there, Huckleberry;” and “Don’t scrunch up like that, Huckleberry — set up straight;” and pretty soon she would say, “Don’t gap and stretch like that, Huckleberry — why don’t you try to behave?” Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn’t mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular. She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn’t say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it.

    I trust that my primary teacher has now had her calling and election made sure, just for putting up with us.

    Just after the part with the mourner’s bench you cite in the original post, Huck says the the mourners sing “the Doxology”, the coments:

    …it just warmed you up and made you feel as good as church letting out. Music is a good thing; and after all that soul-butter and hogwash, I never see it freshen up things so, and sound so honest and bully.

    Feels as good a church leting out. It isn’t a stretch at all to imagine Joseph Smith saying that.

  20. Mark IV (comment 15)

    You mean, people wander around crying I’m a sinner? Wailing because they drink tea and no one will be nice to them? Who would do that? So immature. Sheesh.

    Heh. Please laugh at me.

  21. On a related note . . .

    Somewhere buried in the Library of America volume of Lincoln’s writings/speeches is a statement by him (sadly unmarked, since when I read it I would have had to stand up and walk across the room for a pencil!) where he used “translate” to describe not the process of changing words from one language to another, but the process that we would call intpretation today, that of understanding the English text properly.

    Makes one wonder what Joseph meant when he wrote to Mr. Wentworth about the Bible being “translated” correctly.

  22. Mark IV says:

    Amri, I won’t laught at you, but I will certainly laugh with you. Isn’t laughing with someone just as good as mourning with them?

  23. anonymous says:

    test

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