Moroni’s Message in a Bottle: How to (Re)Build a Church #BOM2016

Moroni 1-10

Perhaps no chapter in the Book of Mormon seems more out of place than the eighth chapter of Moroni. It occurs towards the end of a genocidal campaign against Moroni’s people. He is quite likely the last Nephite left on earth. The record has already been completed, and he is now traveling across the hemisphere schlepping about 500 pounds of gold plates and trying to avoid all of the people who want to kill him, which is pretty much everybody. What a strange time to transcribe a letter from his father about infant baptism.

What’s going on? The standard Sunday School answer would be that the Lord saw our day and knew that we would struggle with the question of infant baptism, so he inspired Mormon and Moroni to include this epistle. And the standard anti-Mormon answer would be that Joseph Smith was making stuff up to speak to a major religious controversy of his day. Both of these answers, I think, treat the actual text of the Book of Mormon as evidence to support or refute a historical argument.

What I committed to do in my #BOM2016 posts this year was to treat the Book of Mormon as a primary text and not as evidence for anything else, and, in this vein, I would like to suggest is that there is a textual warrant for this passage that is deeply rooted in one of the major threads of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, it is perhaps the most important narrative thread in the portion that Mormon redacted, namely, the development and preservation of the Nephite Church.

Let’s go all the way back to the start of Mormon’s redaction. The entire Book of Mosiah is organized around Alma’s establishment of a Church, something almost unheard of in the ancient world. The first half of Mosiah maneuvers a group of Nephites into a position—the court of King Noah—where they fall away from the correct belief and are visited by an Old Testament-style prophet. Abinidai preaches and converts Alma, who then converts a group of followers and institutes (perhaps for the first time in the history of the world) the ordinance of baptism, perhaps the defining feature of the new Church.

The Church, then, becomes the main character of the Books of Alma and Helaman. For most of this time, it is an official state Church, but, because the Nephites have some kind of religious freedom, people are free to accept or reject it. Alma gives up his political position to win converts to the Church, and the Sons of Mosiah bring a group of Lamanites into the fold. In time, the Church manages to erase the racial divisions between “Nephites” and “Lamanites.” In Helaman and the first part of 3 Nephi, the Church falls on hard times and is just about to be wiped out, when the signs of Christ’s birth appear and turn the tables on its opponents. Christ comes and sets everything right, leading to 200 years of Utopian bliss.

The foundation of the Nephite Church, then, is the crowning achievement—and the organizing principle—of Mormon’s narrative, and it is something that has all but disappeared from the world that he and his son know. In this sense, Mormon and Moroni were in the same position as the Levite priests after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: they were the last initiates into a community of rituals and practices that would disappear from the world unless they wrote everything down.

The Levites produced the Book of Leviticus. Moroni produced the Book of Moroni, which is (thankfully) a much easier book to read, but which serves much the same purpose: they are both instruction manuals on how to build a church written to a future people in the hopes that they will restore what has been lost. The first five chapters of Moroni give the basics: how to confirm someone a member of the Church, how to ordain priests and teachers, how to administer the sacrament. This is the nuts-and-bolts how-to-run-a-church stuff that anybody trying to reassemble what the Nephites built will need to know.

It is in this context that Moroni reproduces his father’s epistle on infant baptism. It is a cross-generational team effort between the only two people left in the world who know how to run a Church. Like the Levitical priests, they know (or at least have reason to suspect) that anything they forget to write down will be lost forever. In the same ways that the Levites felt compelled write down or reproduce every grizzly detail of the animal sacrifices that occurred in the Temple, Moroni felt compelled to say everything he could think to say about the central ordinance of the Church that he knew.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Great insight. I’ve loved the whole series and am sad for it to come to an end.

  2. This doctrine helped my ancestors into the church. It’s lovely and of good report and praiseworthy.

  3. And it’s wrenching to reread this chapter in light of the policy regarding children of gay parents. We need to rebuild indeed.

  4. Many, many thanks from an infrequent commenter – this series has been wonderful. I hope you will consider continuing to share your thoughts on the Book of Mormon – it is needed.

  5. One hypothesis of mine—which doesn’t really affect your points at all—was that in times of intense uncertainty and impending death, members of Church in Mormon’s time (as there were some, evinced by the existence of Moroni 7) were tempted to administer saving ordinances to their children before the latter would die.

  6. A minor (relative to the main point of the article) quibble: in Moses 6:64-65 it says that Adam was baptized. So Alma was not the first to begin baptism. Nephi also talks a lot about baptism in 2 Nephi 31 which was much earlier than Alma. Also I believe there is evidence that baptism was practiced among the house of Israel long before John the Baptist. It’s actually a pretty core part of Mormonism that baptism has been required of everyone and was taught throughout history (otherwise 2 Nephi 31 makes less sense).

  7. The doctrine helped me join the church, too.

    I also think it’s a good companion chapter to Moroni 7, which has an overall theme of trusting in God. His main beef with infant baptism is it shows a lack of trust in God, IMO.