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.