Alma at the Waters of Mormon: What it Meant to Belong to the World’s First Church #BOM2016

As the chronicle of a failed colony, the Record of Zeniff takes up way too much space in the Book of Mosiah. Readers of Mosiah must be forgiven, therefore, if they fail to recognize the magnitude of what happens in Chapter 18. To put it simply, Alma’s founding of a Church at the Waters of Mormon is the most significant thing that happens in the entire Book of Mormon, with the single exception of the appearance of Jesus Christ in 3 Nephi. If we accept this passage as historical, then we must see Alma’s actions in Mosiah 18 as creating thing in the world’s first “church” in any modern sense of the word.

There is no ancient precedent for what we call a “church.” The Ancient Israelites did not have a church. They had an official state deity and a set of cultic practices centering around the temple. (The Greeks had pretty much the same thing but with more wine and better plays). To the extent that “religion” existed anywhere in the ancient world, it was a collective affair: Israel pleased, or failed to please Yahweh, but no individual Israelite ever got to decide which church to belong to. Before Alma’s creation of the Church at the waters of Mormon, this was how it seemed to work among the Nephites.

About 200 years after the events described in Mosiah, the Apostle Paul went through the holy land setting up Christian Churches in the major cities of Asia Minor. Lacking a word for such an assembly, the New Testament writers used the Greek word ekklesia, which simply meant “assembly,” to describe what Paul and others set up. From this word, of course, we get “ecclesiastical” all of its derivatives–and translated into English it became “church,” a concept that originated (it has generally been assumed) with the first generation of urban Christians.

But if we accept the historical claims of the Book of Mormon, we need to push the origins of the ekklesia back to the time of Alma. And this actually gives us some very useful information for understanding the concept. Mosiah 18 is especially useful in defining the boundaries of roughly the same kind of ecclesiastical community created by Paul. Through the baptismal covenant in 18:8-10, Alma sets out a sort of Mere Christianity much merer than C.S. Lewis ever imagined:

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;  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. 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? (Mosiah 18:8-10)

Let’s break this down into the three fundamental requirements of membership in the Church:

The first requirement is to want to be part of the community. Conversion begins with being “desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people.” This seems simple to us: of course someone would have to want to be part of the Church they are joining—duh! But the idea that an individual can just decide what religion to belong to is a very modern one in the Western world. From Constantine through Jefferson, Western Christianity was organized around state churches to which one belonged as a matter of national citizenship. Religious affiliation was not freely chosen, and, by the terms of Alma’s baptismal covenant, ineffective.

One of the most important thing that we learn about the Nephite Church in subsequent chapters of the Book of Mormon is that, even when it becomes the official state religion, it adopts an official policy of religious toleration (Alma 30:7). This means that people can choose not to belong to the Church. But it also means that people who do belong to the Church have to choose the relationship affirmatively. If we look closely, we can see echoes of a powerful doctrine here: that religious affiliation must be entirely unconstrained—formally by the state or informally by family and cultural mechanisms such as guilt and shame—or it cannot count as “conversion.”

The second requirement is to enter into a covenant with the other members of the community. The original baptismal covenant involved exactly 204 people (see here for my thoughts on the significance of this number). It is extremely important that the first covenant that they made was with each other, rather than with a formal organization. To qualify for membership in the ekklesia, they had to promise to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light,” to “mourn with those that mourn” and “to comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” They had to promise, in other words, to become an integral part of the lives of 203 other people—and to learn to treat them as they would members of their own family.

The clear implication here is that learning how to love a few hundred other people is the most important thing that happens in the Church of Christ. “Conversion” doesn’t mean to change religions, or even to become someone who thinks that Jesus is really neat. It means to give up the essential selfishness and tribalism of natural humanity and become capable of seeing and treating other people as Christ sees and treats them—which is also what Paul meant by the word that the KJV translates as “charity.” An ekklesia,  is a school of Christlike love—a contained religious community where we can learn how to love actual people in the way that Christ requires of His disciples.

The third requirement is 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.” This is the core of discipleship—not allegiance to an institution or to a set of doctrines, but a willingness to testify constantly of the reality of Christ and the centrality of the atonement.  This requirement of baptism comes with a powerful promise–“that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life.” It is the mutuality of these promises that make them a covenant, and, through baptism, Alma’s followers further covenanted to “serve him and keep his commandments that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you”—which is the commitment that we now renew each week by taking the sacrament.

It is no accident that “to stand as witnesses of God” is part of the same sentence as “comfort those who stand in need of comfort”; the former proceeds directly from the latter. For Alma, as for Paul, this is the defining characteristic of the ekklesia: it is a personal relationship with Christ that is part of—and inseparable from—relationships with the other members of a community.

To really get what Alma means here, I think, we need to change the way that we usually think about the Church. We are all used to thinking of “the Church” as a large international religious organization with 15 million members and an organized hierarchy with its corporate headquarters in Salt Lake City. But for both Paul and Alma, the Church, or the ekklesia, was almost entirely local. It had to be because we have to know actual people very well in order to love them meaningfully. It is easy to love everybody in the world theoretically. It is much harder to love Brother Jones, who takes 20 minutes each testimony meeting to explain about the Belgian Illuminati and the Antichrist. We learn to love in our wards and branches. When Alma says “church,” this is what he means.

We live our lives as testaments of Christ to the extent that we learn to adopt His perspective on (among other things) other people. And we learn how to adopt such a perspective by serving, and being served by people whose lives we have allowed to intertwine with our own. For both Paul and Alma, religious conversion is less about accepting a set of orthodoxies and more about joining a community of believers whom we covenant to love and support as though they were members of our own family. This is not something that we have to do because we are disciples; it what being a disciple means.


  1. I loved every bit of this. Especially because it was written far more eloquently than my own similar thoughts. Geography-based congregations can make for tough sledding, but that’s kind of the point: we have to build Zion where we are.

  2. thegenaboveme says:

    I have long enjoyed reading Mosiah 18 and Paul’s writings on Christian community. Thanks for connecting these two things in a significant way.

  3. My last time reading through, it struck me that the whole Zeniff/Noah/Abinadi/Limhi episode was perhaps to set up the revelation in Mosiah 24, which is also a kind of mere Christianity, but with more of an emphasis on church administration (anybody who repents is my church, anybody who doesn’t isn’t, you must forgive anybody that repents, and nothing will overthrow my church except the sin of its members). That revelation seems to be really important to Mormon. He even has the angel repeat part of it to Alma when he is struck dumb.

    It’s interesting that Alma establishes the church not as a result of being called and authorized, but on his own initiative, and it isn’t until several decades later that the Lord basically approves it and calls it his church. Kind of the opposite of what we might expect, with our ideas of the need for authority.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Perfect timing; this will be very useful for this Sunday’s lesson.

  5. Ugly Mahana says:

    This is excellent.

    I think I agree that the organization established by Alma was unprecedented. But I wonder if it was. In the Old Testament, we read of organizations called the sons of the prophets that did not seem to have kingly approval. I wonder if they were something like Alma’s group. Does anyone know?

  6. Jason K. says:

    A slight correction: elective church membership antedates Jefferson by at least a couple centuries. Separatist churches (that is, churches whose members consider themselves separate from the national churches) started to spring up in the 16th century, with Anabaptists probably the most significant sect. In England, such churches became a permanent part of the religious landscape beginning in the 1640s, as evidenced by the failure of the 1662 Act of Uniformity to squelch them. The 1640s development is particularly significant, because with it began the process of people accepting that they lived in a religiously pluralistic society (mostly the sectarians themselves: forms of official persecution persisted in England/the UK until the 19th century).

  7. it's a series of tubes says:

    Damn, this is good stuff. Thanks Michael.

  8. Interesting post. Nephi uses the idea of a church extensively in his apocalyptic writings, and also refers to a literal, real-time church in 1 Nephi 4:26. Was this a template for Alma to follow or was he playing it by ear?

  9. Clark Goble says:

    I’m a bit more skeptical we only see this with Paul. There were lots of cosmopolitan areas in the ancient world where people had different religions, didn’t accept the other people’s religious beliefs, met in congregations and so forth. The Babylonian captivity being one obvious example that pre-dates Alma. They most likely even had conversion with rituals related to it, although what form that took in the exile is unclear. Certainly around the time of Christ there were debates about whether circumcision was required for conversion. (Paul wasn’t the only one debating this)

    While we don’t know for sure what was going on with Jewish conversion in pre-exilic times, most of what Alma does (minus the circumcision debate) was in keeping with debates over Jewish conversion in the 1st century. (A sacrifice was also required, but deferred if the temple wasn’t around)

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Just to add, in Judaism the mikveh (baptism) isn’t just for conversion but is required for many things including ritual uncleanliness (usually bodily fluids of various sorts by both sexes) Some of these rules arise in Rabbinical Judaism but some you can find in the Old Testament. It’s also done as part of the consecration of a priest, after the priest sends off the scapegoat, etc.. (Although this may not necessarily be immersion in pre-exilic Judaism — see Ex 29:4; 40:12; 29:4 etc.)

    Since a lot of this was likely composed after the exile we’re left with a bit of a mystery regarding the type of Judaism the Lehites were exposed to. Add in circumstantial evidence that Lehi and Nephi were part of the anti-Josiah reform groups and it gets even more complex. Josiah moved to centralize a lot of ritual including sacrifice. Whereas Lehi clearly doesn’t do this. This may affect how the Lehites see mikveh but also how it developed in the pre-exilic period. (Lots we don’t know)

    There are some hints that what Alma is doing is closer to the traditional mikveh rather than our baptism, despite the clear Christian overtones he gives it. For one, it’s not clear baptism requires authority for Alma. Often (usually?) the mikveh is self-administered, as it was in Alma 18:14. On the other hand Mos 21:33 strongly suggests authority is seen as required which would be a huge break with baptism as mikveh. Although perhaps conversion mikveh required authority in pre-exilic Judaism. (We don’t know – although even today conversion must be accepted by Rabbinical authorities but not priestly ones)

    None of this is to deny what appear to be innovations by Alma — including the issue of authority. However we should also remember that Nephi and Lehi have visions of the messiah involving baptism. Nephi takes this to be a requirement for the Nephites to baptize. (2 Ne 31:5-12) While the type of Judaism that Alma practiced under Noah likely differed from the traditional Nephite forms, they likely were similar. After Alma’s repentance due to Abinadi (and we’ve no clue where he comes from) it appears Alma is trying to return to more normal Nephite practice. (Interestingly we’ve no idea what texts Alma has, if any)

    I’d add that while Alma talks about “church of God” it’s not clear this is a church in the sense the NT thinks of it or that we think of it today. Rather I suspect church here is a more eschatological church. “there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil” (1 Ne 14:10) Although Mos 21:30 might argue against that. “Alma and the people that went with him, who had formed a church of God through the strength and power of God”

  11. Terry H says:

    Clark, I’m not sure that the idea of “a church of God” is what Alma was doing in the sense its opposed to the eschatological church Nephi talks about. The Mos. 21:30 comment you quote is more of an editorial aside from Mormon writing about 500 years later AFTER Jesus had come and set up what he set up with the Nephites and there may be some kind of anachronism (from Mormon not Joseph Smith).

  12. Clark Goble says:

    That’s a good point Terry. A lot of the description of Alma is Mormon writing post-Christian. That may color how he presents and interprets things. (Then throw in the strong possibility the English translation is itself fairly interpretive and it’s harder to piece out what Alma was actually doing)

  13. stephenchardy says:

    Don’t stop at verse 10!! Look at Mosiah 18:17 to 30. There in brief the layout of the entire church structure is described: entrance by baptism, need for authority, a limited scope of teaching, unpaid clergy, Sabbath worship, charity. It’s all laid out in 13 verses. It manages to be both brief and comprehensive.

  14. Looking at Joseph Smith’s revelations, there’s evidence that a “church” is really an independent, autonomous “stake” of 15,000-20,000 people, broken up into large and small “branches” or congregations. There’s little or no support for the kind of centralized worldwide “church” we have today. I look forward to when LDS, Inc. breaks up into several hundred churches, and the general authorities become general advisors “without purse or scrip” who help set up and train stakes, rather than dictating everything from an unscriptural central headquarters. I believe that this decentralization may come as a result of outside legal and social pressure aimed at LDS, Inc. In the days of polygamy, stakes began incorporating as independent entities, and we’ll see it again.

  15. If you read between the lines here, it appears that the word “church” is an anachronism both in Mosiah and, especially, earlier in the Book of Mormon. From what little I’ve been able to read on the subject, the KJV choice of the English word “church” for ekklesia in the NT may have been strongly influenced by good King James, who had a vested interest in the topic. In the OT, the same word is translated as either “assembly” or “congregation.” But in the NT it becomes “church,” probably because church was such an important later development that prevailed at the time of the translation. If the Book of Mormon is an ancient record originally written in some Egyptianized form of ancient Hebrew, I wonder what word Alma used, or Nephi, for that matter. How it got translated as “church” is, unfortunately, a topic we can’t do more than speculate about.

    What I find interesting is that after Alma’s little church joined Mosiah’s kingdom, Mosiah would approve the church to spread throughout his kingdom, as a sort of redundant religious organization, something that had never been necessary in the entire history of Israel or any branches of it. Israel never needed a separate religious organization, since the entire nation was considered God’s people. Same in the Book of Mormon until Alma’s group broke off from Noah’s wicked reign. But after Alma’s group joined Mosiah’s apparently righteous kingdom, there would have been no need for a “church” separate from this branch of Israel.

  16. I should add that there was no need for a “church” in the biblical record until Jesus’s disciples started establishing small assemblies that were definitely not part of the larger Israelite nation. But the actual notion of “church,” as we now conceive it, was a much later development.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    Wally, I’m not sure I’d say it’s an anachronism because I just don’t see any evidence the structure of church in the Book of Mormon bears much resemblance to it’s use in Joseph’s time or even necessarily what develops in late antiquity. Rather I think it’s a choice of a word roughly closest in meaning. As Terry notes we’re probably also primarily dealing with Mormon’s word choice rather than Alma’s. Whether there’s some Hebrew word underlying this or more likely something out of the environment the Nephites found themselves in is less clear.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    I should add that the relationship of Mosiah to Alma’s small little group has long confused me. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that the text simply doesn’t mention. (Again, where on earth did Abinadi come from?)

  19. Aussie Mormon says:

    Well when Mr and Mrs Abinadi liked each other very very much….

  20. This sounds similar to what Moses organized with his captains in deuteronomy. We don’t have much information on that, but it’s a pretty logical extension to think those little organizations functioned as churches.

  21. Leonard R says:

    Regarding the question of “who the heck is Abinadi?”, as I was teaching Primary this year (8-11 year olds), it struck me that time-wise, Abinadi could have been from the land of Zarahemla and a convert of King Benjamin. Zeniff and co. leave early in King Benjamin’s reign. King Benjamin gives he’s address giving his people the name of Christ when he is abdicating in favour of Mosiah II. Abinadi could have been one of King Benjamin’s people, and then received a call from God to go to the people of Zeniff (now the people of Noah).

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