Digging in Cumorah
by Mark D. Thomas
[p.123]And thus we see, that except the Lord doth chasten his people
with many afflictions,
yea, except he doth visit them with death, and with terror,
and with famine, and with all manner of pestilences,
they will not remember him.
O how foolish, and how vain,
and how evil, and devilish
and how quick to do iniquity,
and how slow to do good, are the children of men;
yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one,
and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world;
yea, how quick to be lifted up in pride;
yea, how quick to boast,
and do all manner of that which is iniquity;
and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God,
and to give ear to his counsels;
yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths! …
O how great is the nothingness of the children of men;
yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth.
—Helaman 12:3-5, 7 (line arrangement added)
Chapters 2 and 3 have examined the wilderness narratives as symbolic rites of passage. This chapter explores how individual conversions function as rites of passage. Inherent in the concept of conversion is a transformation process from one state of being to another. Through this process, one receives a forgiveness of one’s sin. Since sin and guilt are universal human experiences, rites for their expiation ap-[p.124]pear in many settings and forms, including the religious faiths of Joseph Smith’s day. Part of my analysis examines how Book of Mormon conversion narratives employ the nineteenth-century evangelical conversion forms and formulas. Not every nineteenth-century evangelical formula can be found in the Book of Mormon. But there are sufficient examples to locate the language of Joseph Smith within its linguistic and theological setting.
According to the Book of Mormon, God “speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Ne. 31:3). Thus the Book of Mormon necessarily communicated in the language of Joseph Smith. Moreover, in the case of conversion narratives, the Book of Mormon repeats a nineteenth-century literary form often and in such great detail that it is integral to the events and the theology of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon presents the conversion process as the universal passage to salvation in all ages but with specific literary formulas and spiritualized biblical texts typical of the early nineteenth century.
Some readers may worry that a discussion of these minute parallels may challenge a traditional belief in the book’s ancient origins: Such a reaction would be unfortunate, because there is a great interpretive lesson to be learned here. The frequent use of a nineteenth-century evangelical conversion form in the Book of Mormon communicates to the reader that the great spiritual awakening experienced in the early nineteenth century is to be understood as a universal form inspired by God and that New Being is not only possible but necessary in every age for salvation.1 I would argue that this use of the evangelical conversion form in effect endorses the Book of Mormon’s claims to be speaking directly to an early nineteenth-century audience. Even though the Book of Mormon condemns the latter-day spiritual darkness in which it would appear, it also endorses the universal righteousness in certain existing practices. In short, the Book of Mormon implies that evangelical religion is a divine preparation for its own revealed message.
This chapter will examine four Book of Mormon conversion narratives—those of Enos, the people of King Benjamin, Lamoni and his father, and the Lamanites by Lehi and Nephi, sons of Helaman in the context of the evangelical conversion form.
[p.125]The Evangelical Conversion Form
Joseph Smith relates that he became seriously interested in religion in about 1818, particularly in the Methodists.2 Methodism was one of the evangelical churches then in the process of becoming the mainstream of Anlerican religion. Smith exhorted in Methodist class meetings, attended revivals, experienced the state of conviction and conversion typical of evangelicals in conjunction with his early visions, married a Methodist, and discussed religion with his Methodist in-laws. In 1828 he joined the Methodist “class” (the basic local congregational unit) for a short period. Other members of his family joined the Presbyterian church, another evangelical religion. In short, Smith had an intimate acquaintance with evangelical religion, one that profoundly affected his theology and vocabulary.3
The evangelical conversion narrative is a literary description of a ritualized personal event. The conversion process was communicated in conventional literary formulas that described, defended, and interpreted the conversion. Thus the narrative scene was shaped by both literary and historical elements. The evangelical literary presentation of history does not destroy the narrative’s historical function of “standing for” prior events. It rather gives the historical narrative the teleological fulfillment it otherwise lacks. These conversion events draw their meaning from their ability to find or reinforce a narrative identity. This narrative identity is linked with past biblical events (which it interprets and models), with the identity of the believing community, and with the converted individual.4 Nineteenth-century writers themselves accept these literary and ritualistic conventions. One writer for Methodist Magazine, for example, reported of an 1825 camp meeting: “As there was nothing peculiar to distinguish this meeting … from others of a similar character, it seems needless to enter into a detailed account of it.”5 Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright once met a group of people on the road who used the conversion conventions to mock evangelicals. They would repeatedly cry aloud for mercy, fall down, get up, and shout praises.6
We can best understand this evangelical conversion narrative form by understanding its theological background. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was followed by a period of orthodoxy, or Protestant Scholasticism, during which classical Protestant theology was formed. Preaching during this period was essentially theological dis-[p.126]course with orthodox theologians attempting to make religion as objective and doctrinally pure as possible. Lutheran scholasticism reached its high point in the work of Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), whose writing was technical and intellectual. Pietism in Europe and revivalism in America arose in seventeenth-century Protestantism, partly as a response to the objective formality of orthodoxy. Pietism and revivalism stressed the importance of personal devotion and experience: the subjective side of religion. While pietism and revivalism had differences, they shared many common features, one of which is captured in the title of Philipp Jakob Spener’s 1675 Pia Desideria (Pious Desires). This work marked the beginning of pietism in Europe which helped create evangelical revivals in America.
For evangelicals, religion was not essentially an intellectual and theological exercise; rather, it began in the emotions of the heart. Emotionalism drove conversions and dominated descriptions of the evangelical conversion form. In an 1827 sermon, the famous New York revivalist Charles Finney defended the extreme emotion evoked by his revivals by arguing that angels and devils .agree intellectually. What differentiated angels from devils was their heart, or the state of their affections.7 Emotion, whether subtle or melodramatic, was considered a manifestation of divine power. The Methodists and those on the frontier tended to display more extreme emotion than those who were neither Methodist nor on the frontier. But various religious gatherings of these two groups displayed a kind of godly hysteria. For them, religion was not the opiate, but “the adrenaline of the people.”8 The terms used to describe this subjective, experienced religion were experiment and experimental meaning a subjective experience perceived by the heart rather than the mind.9
Examples of experimental religion appear in accounts written by Methodists in New York and Pennsylvania. Valentine Cook, a Methodist circuit rider in the 1790s, preached with such plainness10 and force that one listener, George Peck of Genesee, New York, reported that the astonished people fell “like trees of the forrest before a terrible tempest,” for “God was in the words he uttered.” His replacement in 1797 was Thomas Ware, a calm and pleasant preacher who lacked Ware’s emotionalism. Attempting to remedy this “lack,” a local Methodist prayed after one of Ware’s sermons, “O Lord, bless our new elder and give him more religion.”11
[p.127]Opponents of camp meetings and revivals typically complained of the excessive emotionalism in their “experimental religion,” while evangelicals regularly accused their opponents of cold formalism and failing to awaken and alarm sleeping sinners. A Methodist preacher in New York State accused a Calvinist who preached that God’s elect were guaranteed salvation of singing “the lullaby of the devil, sung as he rocked converts and older Christians into the deep sleep of carnal security.”12 Similarly, Nephi predicts that in the last days the devil would “pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say, All is well in Zion, yea, Zion prospereth, all is well” (2 Ne. 28:21). This is one example of how the Book of Mormon uses evangelical formulaic phrases as part of a larger pattern of harmony with evangelical emotionalism, zeal, and religion of the heart.
A second important theological feature of the evangelical conversion form is its particular biblical hermeneutic, or interpretive methodology. There were several reasons for the use of the Bible in the conversion form. The evangelical attitude toward the Bible was that it contained a universal history of salvation in which each individual sought to participate. They also used the Bible to defend evangelical conversions against criticism. For example, evangelicals used the Bible to defend their use of camp meetings, revivals in country or forested areas that lasted several days. They began around 1800, partly to accommodate the large crowds, the lengthy prayers, and the falling of those in the audience. Critics claimed that camp meetings were modern inventions without biblical precedent and thus had no place in real Christianity. Their advocates claimed that camp meetings were a modern Feast of Tabernacles and that the day of Pentecost was the archetypal revival.
Evangelicals spiritualized certain biblical passages applicable to conversion and, in turn, interpreted the conversion experience in their light. Revivals were so intimately connected with the life of Jesus in Charles Finney’s mind that he spoke of Jesus and his apostles as conducting revivals. Other popular biblical allusions were the miracles of Jesus. For example, the December 1825 Methodist Magazine described those who had participated in a particular revival as having awaited “the troubling of the waters,” an allusion to John 5 in which Jesus healed a paralytic waiting at the pool of Bethesda where, he believed, he would be healed if he was the first to enter after an angel “troubled the wa-[p.128]ters.”13 The allusion indicates that those attending the revival hoped to leave spiritually healed by Jesus. Other popular allusions to New Testament miracles in conversion narratives included “go and sin no more,” “I saw men as trees walking,” and “thy faith hath made thee whole.”
The popular Methodist biblical commentator Adam Clarke outlined a spiritualized interpretation of Matthew 9 in which Jesus raised a child from the dead: “Where death has taken place, no power but that of the great God can restore to life; in such a case, vain is the help of man. So, the soul that is dead in trespasses and sin-that is, sentenced to death because of transgression-and is thus dead in law, can only be restored to spiritual life by the mighty power of the Lord Jesus … bring Christ to him by fervent, faithful and persevering prayer.”
Evangelical hymns also contained spiritualized allusions to conversions. Charles Wesley’s 1780 Methodist hymnal contained hymns to be sung during the conversion process, and they contained spiritualized biblical texts. Other examples will appear in the discussion below of the three stages of the conversion process: the natural man, conviction of sin, and conversion to Jesus.
Based on my reading, it seems likely that most evangelicals before 1830 believed in total innate depravity, attributed to the fall of Adam. These evangelicals referred to this condition as “man in a state of nature,” “the natural man,” or being in a “lost and fallen state by nature.” Although the concept of natural depravity appears in the Pauline epistles, the nineteenth-century notion differed significantly from Paul.14 In an 1826 sermon, William Burgess outlined the “natural condition of all men” in an unregenerate state: “We are natural enemies to the character and perfections of the Deity; and he who is an enemy in point of view, to the divine character, is, in effect, an enemy to God himself.” After a long life as a Methodist circuit rider, James Erwin summarized his understanding of conversion: “Conversion is that mighty change by which a natural man becomes a spiritual man—a new creature … a man cannot get into heaven without a radical conversion.”15
These discussions of the natural man were also typical of traditional Protestant literature published in the early nineteenth century.16 Old [p.129]school Calvinists and conservative Arminians in the early nineteenth century also believed in innate depravity. In the 1820s New Haven Calvinists (following liberal Arminians) renounced innate depravity and declared that sin consisted solely of evil actions rather than deriving from fallen human nature. New Haven Calvinist Nathaniel Taylor agreed in his 1828 Cancio ad Clerum that humans do have an evil nature, but that it is nothing more than temptation. Sin is yielding to that temptation, not evil inherent in human nature.17
The writings of early American Methodists reflect an ambiguous understanding of the natural man. Some writers use the term to refer to human nature before receiving grace. But because Methodists also believed that every person receives enough grace at birth to choose between good and evil, “natural man” was a mere logical abstraction. However, the same authors also used the phrase “natural man” to refer to human nature prior to conversion. Space precludes a thorough discussion of this complicated theological concept, but my point is that original readers of the Book of Mormon would have been familiar with a wide variety of opinions about human nature before conversion.
Evangelical conversion stories were not theological treatises, but they made theological assumptions that are reflected in their language. Converts used “natural man” to describe themselves before conversion, linking it with images of war, captivity, and blindness. For example, Anthony Turck, a Methodist circuit rider, preached of the symbolic captivity of the natural man: “Sinners! You are chained.”18 Preachers frequently referred to the sinner as being in the snares of the devil, the chains of hell, and bondage. Sinners were in a state of darkness, asleep; or enshrouded in a cloud of darkness.19 During the early stages of a sermon in an 1807 camp meeting, James Gwinn said that “an awful cloud seemed to rest upon us”20 prior to the congregation’s falling and becoming converted. Several conversion stories contain accounts of light appearing as sinners are converted. Martha Sonntag Bradley has pointed out that such manifestations served as metaphors for the changes these converts experienced.21 Later in this chapter, I will examine how these metaphors function within the conversion narrative.
Since the natural man was God’s enemy, the symbolism of piercing sinners with swords or arrows and a war-waging God was typical. When the sinner saw that “the arrows of an angry conscience” were not the [p.130]random firings of fate but carefully aimed missiles from the quiver of the Almighty, then terror of spiritual death brought the next stage of conversion-conviction of sin.
Conviction of Sin
The darkness, confusion, or “sleep” of the natural man was intellectual and/or emotional obliviousness to one’s terrible predicament. The preacher’s role was to awaken the sinner and to do battle with the enemy of God. Sermons about hell were colorful and common. When Charles Finney described the descent of the sinner into hell in one sermon, he traced the sinner’s slide so convincingly, his finger moving from the ceiling to the floor, that those in the audience arose to look into the pit. Common metaphors for hell were a monster or an abyss. One preacher claimed that sinners would not be converted until they smelled fire and brimstone burning their own clothes. Many preachers and exhorters pointed out specific sins of individuals in the audience. Terrorizing sinners brought them to a heightened state of anxious guilt called “conviction” or “awakening,” a mood that frequently preceded conversion. In revivals, those under conviction would be invited to the front where they could receive exhortation and be helped by prayer.
In the state of conviction, “sinners were awakened,” “awakened to a sense of their lost condition,” “awakened to their sense of nothingness,” and so forth. Conviction also “awaken[ed] some few to a sense of their danger.”22 It is no accident that the revivals of the early nineteenth century were called the Second Great Awakening. As darkness was an image for the natural man, conversion contains imagery of light. In several conversion stories, the converted sinner saw a light. James Erwin claimed that during one sermon his face shone “as did that ofMoses.”23 Benjamin Lakin, a Methodist circuit rider, recorded in his journal that his wife, who began shouting under the power of God, saw light” circled all around us.”24
In addition to images of darkness and sleep, war was a popular image to convey the process of conviction. The preacher is sometimes described as armed with a sword, a battle axe, or arrows. His sermon “sunk into my breast,” “wounded hearts,” “pierced souls,” “wounded conscience,” “sunk into the heart,” or “cut to my heart.” The groans and cries of the audience were like the moans of the wounded. The sermon, delivered in the evangelical plain style of preaching, would “probe the wound deeper and deeper.” Stubborn sinners might “fortify” them- [p.131]selves “against these ‘arrows of truth,’“ but sinners under conviction would commonly ask, “What shall we do?” or “What shall we do to be saved?” This expression alluded to the day of Pentecost when the people, stirred by Peter’s preaching of Christ, asked him, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Fifteen of the revivals described in Joshua Bradley’s 1819 report for the previous three years show that those under conviction cried this phrase or a variant, and they appear dozens of times in conversion reports from George Peck’s· history of early Methodism in New York and Pennsylvania.25
The common actions of those under conviction in the more emotional revivals include falling, trembling, crying aloud for mercy, and uttering prolonged prayers. Reports of the prayers of those under conviction frequently alluded to Jacob “wrestling” God all night for a blessing (Gen. 32:24-32). Jacob’s wrestle was literal; as shown by the fact that he was physically injured; however, in evangelical accounts, the meaning is spiritualized and refers to fervent prayer. Erwin knew “men to enter their closets and face to face with God wrestle till the break of day.”26 Adam Clarke’s commentary on the Bible contains the following spiritualized interpretation’ of Genesis 32:
We may learn from this that the redemption of the soul will be the blessed consequence of wrestling by prayer and supplication with God; “The kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” From this time Jacob became a new man; but it was not till after a severe struggle that he got his name, his heart, and his character changed. After this he was no more Jacob the supplanter, but Israel the man who prevails with God, and sees him face to face.27
These are typical examples of what can be found in hymns and conversion narratives. In short, Genesis 32 was spiritualized to convey the internal struggles of those under conviction. Another common manifestation of those under conviction is the falling exercise, or falling “under the power of God.” Evangelicals used war imagery (the enemies of God slain in battle) or the image of subjects prostrate before their king. Speaking of the preaching in 1821 in Eden, New York, David Marks stated that “the solemnities of the eternal world were unveiled, and the arrows of the King sharp in the hearts of his enemies. Eleven were wounded, bowed before the Lord.”28
The falling exercise itself took several forms. Sometimes those who [p.132]fell simply lost the use of their limbs but were still conscious and would “cry for mercy.” At other times, they apparently stopped breathing and were described “as if they were dead,” or “as if they were dying.” When they revived, they sometimes reported hearing and comprehending everything going on around them. At other times they saw visions of heaven or hell. Although they literally fell, this state also symbolized the death of the natural man. Revivalist George Baxter says that the falling exercise was also experienced by those “under the influence of comfortable feelings.”29 In other words, the falling exercise could be a manifestation of joy as well as conviction.
One particularly interesting image is that of “shock” during conviction. Baptist John Taylor described how, during a powerful sermon, “the word of God pierced my soul as quick and with as much sensibility as an electric shock.”30 Although David Marks expected something dramatic, such as a vision or a “sudden shock, as of electricity,” his own conversion brought only peace and joy.31 James Erwin described a Methodist love feast in which the assembly moved “like the shock of an earthquake.”32 The 1828 Webster dictionary defines “shocking” as “shaking with sudden violence.” Hence, it appears that “shock” was a synonym for “tremble” or “convulse.” “Shock” and “tremble” were commonly used to describe the effect of the power of God in the conversion process.
When Laman and Lemuel refuse to help Nephi build the ship that God has commanded, God tells Nephi to touch his brothers so that “I will shock them … that they may know that I am the Lord their God.” When Nephi touches them, “the Lord did shake them, even according to the word which he had spoken” (1 Ne. 17:53-54). In 1 Nephi 2:14, Lehi spoke to Laman and Lemuel “with power, being filled with the spirit, until their frames did shake before him.” The Spirit thus shocks Laman and Lemuel to confound them and defend Lehi. While these tremblings were not in the context of a conversion, they represent examples of “experimental” religion in the Book of Mormon.
Conversion, the final stage of this process, brought forgiveness of sins, also described as ‘Justification,” “being born again,” or “the mighty. change.” This transition to conversion was often described in dramatic dichotomies. While the sinner in conviction felt “encircled in the chains of hell,” in conversion he or she was “encircled in the arms of Jesus.” [p.133]The terror and anguish of conviction were replaced by peace and/or joy. Bradley described his conversion at an 1814 revival. The justice of God “filled his soul with unspeakable anguish and distress. But the Lord soon appeared for him, and gave him joy and peace in believing.”33 Sometimes conversion was a quiet state of peace; at other times, it was a state of ecstatic joy. Anguish over sin often gave way to joyous clapping or shouts of praise: “Glory to God” or “Hallelujah.” Some evangelicals also believed that sanctification or perfection was possible in this life after obtaining justification. The Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon also promise sanctification.
For the born-again sinner, the symbolism of the natural man reversed itself: “Once we were enemies of God; now we are his friends. Once we were rebels against the Sovereign of heaven and earth; but they have laid down the weapons of their rebellion, and are now his loyal and obedient subjects.”34 Elizabeth Peck, converted in 1823, resolved “to lay down the weapons of my rebellion, and venture upon Christ, the rock of my salvation.” She then viewed Christ “by faith,” and he spoke “peace to my soul; saying, go in peace and sin no more.” Her “sorrow turned to joy” as she was born again.35 The cutting imagery was changed to healing imagery. At a 1790 Methodist conference, the Lord “manifested his power, both to Wound and heal.”36
The image of the clouds of darkness also reversed as converts experienced the light of the Son of God. One man had “a view of the Saviour [which] dispelled those clouds of darkness which had for so long hovered over his mind, and drove away his despair. Sorrow was immediately turned into joy, beauty was given for ashes, and oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”37 The natural man’s captivity became freedom from the “chains of sins” so that he was “set … at perfect liberty.”38 A revival hymn exulted: “My dungeon shook, my chains fell off .”39
Spiritualized scriptural passages applied to the conversion process or to a particular conversion were: “from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26: 18), “love shed abroad in the heart” (Rom. 5:5), and “out of darkness unto marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Biblical events important in describing certain kinds of conversion included the conversion of Paul, especially if the converted individual had been indifferent or hostile to religion previously. The conversion of Paul could be either explicitly cited or simply alluded to.40 Israel’s [p.134]captivity in Egypt, Anna’s and Simeon’s waiting for the Messiah, and hearing the still, small voice were other biblical allusions used to describe conversions.41 In addition to biblical phrases, evangelicals had their own conventional phrases or formulas for describing conversions: “redeeming love,” “to taste redeeming love,” “to hear the shouts of redeeming love,” and “to sing the song of redeeming love,” a phrase that also appears in the Book of Mormon (Alma 5:26).
Is this last phrase literal or figurative? The answer, as we shall see, is, “both.” Singing was very important to evangelicals. According to Charles A. Johnson, a scholar studying camp meetings, “It has been truthfully said that in the early days of Methodism, congregational singing was worship and the beginning of prayer.”42 He classifies camp meeting hymns into three types. The first, hymns of praise, were songs that new converts were anxious to sing. Two of his examples contain the phrase “redeeming love,” a phrase Methodists had been using since at least 1780.43 Several authors used the phrase “sing redeeming love” to refer to the songs of angels in heaven.44 In these passages “sing redeeming love” can be interpreted as literally singing praise to God for the power of redemption.
Joshua Bradley provides another typical use of the phrase in describing a revival in which “two hundred were brought to sing the song of redeeming love.”45 Here the phrase does not refer to literal singing, but to the conversion itself. The Book of Mormon uses the expression “sing the song of redeeming love” in exactly the same way in Alma 5:9, 26: “If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?”
Evangelicals believed that fallen human nature lost the image of God (or God’s creation) imposed upon it at Adam’s creation, but that conversion or sanctification restored this image. Similarly, the Book of Mormon shows the image of God being restored with conversion: “Have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances?” (Alma 5:14).46
This three-phase evangelical conversion form and its formulas are based on many accounts in the early nineteenth century. They represent a general theological and literary resource upon which authors drew in describing a particular conversion. While reports of some revivals may amount to little more than the numbers convicted and con-[p.135]verted, more frequently an account drew on its audience’s familiarity with the form and provided several of these elements. Many but not all contained biblical allusions as formulas, while many also contained extra-biblical formulas. The early nineteenth-century conversion form had clearly identifiable characteristics and could be used with great flexibility. Robert Alter, in his literary analysis of the Hebrew Bible, reminds us that “as is true of all original art, what is really interesting is not the schema of convention but what is done in each individual application of the schema to give it a sudden tilt of innovation or even to refashion it radically for the imaginative purpose at hand.”47 To be precise, how does the Book of Mormon employ the evangelical conversion narrative in its conversion stories?
Conversions in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon contains all of the major features of the evangelical conversion narrative, including the three main stages of the natural man, conviction, and conversion. It also spiritualizes biblical passages and uses evangelical formulas, two of which we have already examined: singing the song of redeeming love and receiving the image in God.
A third example is Mosiah 3:16-19’s pronouncement of a typical evangelical formula for innate depravity: “the natural !llan is an enemy to God.” (See also Hel. 12:1-7; Ether 3:2.) The Book of Mormon also uses evangelical imagery of the natural man: clouds of darkness (Alma 19:6; Hel. 5:28), being bound by the chains of hell, experiencing captivity (Alma 12:11, 5:6-12, 36:18), needing to awaken (Mosiah 4:5; 2 Ne. 1:23), hearing sermons preached that cut to the heart (1 Ne. 16:2; Mosiah 13:17), and feeling the agony of the state of conviction, crying for mercy, and asking, “What shall we do?” (Alma 18:41, 19:29, 22:15, 32:5, 36:18, 38:8). A number of those convicted and converted fall “as if they were dead,” fall but remain fully conscious, or fall because they are overcome by joy (Mosiah 4:1-2,27:18-22; Alma 18:40-19:34, 22:18-23, 27:16-17, 36:11-23). Those witnessing such falls attribute them to the power of God, as evangelicals did.
In the Book of Mormon, justification means that the sinner has received forgiveness. Mosiah 27:25 alludes to and interprets John 3:1-8: “Marvel not that all mankind … must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteous-[p.136]ness … and thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in no wise inherit the kingdom of God.” The Book of Mormon also uses technical evangelical formulas to describe conversion such as “laying down the weapons of their rebellion” and “singing the song of redemption” (Alma 23:7, 13, 5:9, 26, 26:13).
Conversion is described as a journey from darkness to light, from extreme agony to extreme joy and peace (e.g., Mosiah 4:1-3; Alma 26:15, 36:20-21; Hel. 5:28-44). The conversion enthusiasm typical of evangelicals—clapping, shouting praises, and speaking in tongues-also appears in the Book of Mormon (e.g., 2 Ne. 31:13-14; Mosiah 18:.11; Alma 19:29-30). More detail could be added, but it is beyond reasonable doubt that the Book of Mormon uses the evangelical nineteenth-century conversion form and its formulaic phrasing. My greater concern is now to briefly examine the biblical parallels and the individual Book of Mormon conversions in light of their use of the form which I call the evangelical narrative scene.
The book of Enos, like the Jaredite wilderness narrative, is an exemplary story about the prayer of faith, structured around Enos’s three prayers and their related events. The first, offered on his own behalf, results in his conversion. The second is offered for his people, the Nephites, and the third for his enemies, the Lamanites. The focus of the prayers thus expands outward from Enos. Such faith-related expansiveness was not unknown among evangelicals but was usually not part of a conversion narrative. The Book of Mormon, however, canonizes seeking the desire to convert others as part of the narrative of personal conversion. Enos’s experience thus anticipates Mormon missionary zeal throughout its history.
Because the first prayer is the conversion portion of the’ narrative, I will focus my analysis there. Enos is seeking forgiveness of his sins and begins his narrative with an autobiography. While he is hunting in the forest, he felt his father’s religious teachings “[sink] deep into his heart,” an allusion to an evangelical image of wounding. He knelt and engaged in mighty prayer that lasted an day and into the night, which he describes as “the wrestle which I had before God” (Enos 1:2). This image alludes to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel. I have arranged the [p.137]narrative in parallel lines to show the structurally central role of the prayer of faith:
And my soul hungered
And I kneeled down before my maker
And I cried unto him in mighty prayer
And supplication for mine own soul
And all day long did I cry unto him
Yea, and when the night came,
I did raise my voice high
that it reached the heavens (Enos 1:4)
Immediately following the prayer, a voice speaks: “Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee … And I sayeth, Lord, how is it done?” The voice explains: “Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast not heard or seen. And many years passeth away, before that he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to it, thy faith hath made thee whole” (Enos 1:5-8). This commendation echoes Jesus’ statements, “Thy faith hath made thee whole,” after miracles of healing (Matt. 9:22; Luke 8:48; Mark 10:52).
In this narrative King Benjamin delivers his farewell address to his people in a gathering that has been compared to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, to camp meetings in the nineteenth century, and to other forms.48 Nineteenth-century evangelicals saw camp meetings as modern manifestations of the Feast of Tabernacles, as noted above. His sermon outlines the plan of salvation in which the transformation of the natural man through a forgiveness of sin is central. But there is much more in the sermon tl1an a discussion of conversion.
The short conversion narrative is the most impersonal in the Book of Mormon. After hearing Benjamin, fear of the Lord strikes the people, they fall to the earth, and, with one voice, cry aloud: “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ, that we may receive a forgiveness of sins, and our hearts may be purified: for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created Heaven and earth, and all things, who shall come down among the children of men” (Mosiah 4:2). They then “were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience” (Mosiah 4:3).
The account includes no names and no extraneous or personal de-[p.138] tails. Even the words in the united cry for mercy sound more like a rehearsed confession of faith than the pleadings of a terror-stricken sinner who has just fallen to the ground. This combination of extreme emotion with a careful theological statement uttered in one voice is evidence that the narrator is telling his story using conventional elements. The whole narrative is a bare-bones outline of the conversion, an illustrated outline of Benjamin’s theological sermon. In other words, the conversion is theology illustrated, which accounts for its stark and conventional nature.
But what this narrative lacks in realism and detail, it makes up for in theological. clarity. The signs of true conversion are not the voices and the miracles of other Book of Mormon conversion experiences but peace and joy. For those who attain New Being, the song of salvation consists of joy and peace; all the rest is accompaniment.
Alma the Younger (Mosiah 27; Alma 36)
Evangelicals used Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus as a type of the conversion of rebels and persecutors. Paul, en route to prosecute Christians in Damascus, is halted by a brilliant light and the voice of Christ asking, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” Paul and his companions fall to the ground. When they recover, Paul’s companions lead him, temporarily blind, into the city, where three days later Ananias heals him (Acts 9:1-18, 22:1-16, 26:1-18).
This story is the narrative basis for the conversion of Alma the Younger who, with his companions, the sons of Mosiah, is trying to destroy the church of God. An angel appears to them. They fall to the ground at both the beginning and end of this visitation. The first fall dramatizes the angel’s threat to Alma that he will be destroyed. The angel’s speech echoes that of Christ in Paul’s narrative: “Alma, arise and stand forth, for why persecuteth thou the church of God?” Alma is struck dumb as a result of the vision (for two days, according to Mosiah 27:19-23, three, according to Alma 36:16). His companions bring him to his father, whose prayers result in his restoration to physical and spiritual health. Patterning Alma’s conversion after Paul’s, as we have seen, fits the evangelical understanding of the conversion of rebels and persecutors.
[p.139]But the differences between the conversions of Paul and Alma are as instructive as the similarities. Paul received his sight through a blessing from Ananias. Alma was healed by the fasting and prayer of his father and the church. In fact, the angel appeared in the first place because Alma the elder “hath prayed with much faith concerning thee, that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith” (Mosiah 27:14).
This narrative stresses the importance of the prayer of faith as the heart of Book of Mormon conversion experiences, assuring the faithful that God will certainly answer their prayer. The concept that God would inevitably answer “the prayer of faith” was one of several controversial “new measures” introduced in: New York revivals in the 1820s.49
In Alma’s narrative, the power of God shakes the earth, causes Alma and his companions to fall, and makes Alma lose his speech. According to Mosiah 27:14, “there was nothing save the power of God, that could shake the earth and cause it to tremble.” This statement suggests that all shaking of the earth is caused by divine power. In the early nineteenth century, some people believed earthquakes to be purely natural events while others considered them divine manifestations. The Book of Mormon shows that Alma, even as an “unbeliever” and a wicked man, is convinced of God’s existence and his own sinfulness by these physical manifestations of heavenly power.
Alma’s conversion narrative can be divided into four main sections: (1) the wickedness of Alma and his companions (vv. 8-10);50 (2) the angelic visit to convict these sinners of God’s power (vv. 11-17); (3) Alma’s conviction of sinfulness and conversion to Christ, which, the narrator stresses, was caused by the power of God (vv. 18-23); and (4) Alma’s sermon interpreting conversion as essential for all (vv. 24-31). In this section are numerous biblical parallels. Alma is compared to Simon the sorcerer, and he alludes to John 3:7 where Jesus mentions the necessity of being born of the water and spirit (Mosiah 27:2911 Acts 8:23; Mosiah 27:25/ / John 3:7).
Lamoni (Alma 17·19)
Just as Alma’s conversion fits the evangelical model for the conversion of religious persecutors, so Lamoni and his people exemplify the [p.140]conversion of the heathen. The sons of Mosiah, converted with Alma the Younger, resolve to preach the gospel to the Lamanites, a great task since they will be proselyting “a wild, and a hardened, and a ferocious people” (Alma 17: 14). Still, the narrator explains, “the promises of the Lord were extended unto them, on the condition of repentance” (Alma 17:15). At the end of the conversion story, the narrator stresses, “Thus the Lord did begin to pour out his spirit upon them; and we see that his arm is extended to all people who will repent and believe on his name” (Alma 19:36).
Biblical allusions link Lamoni’s conversion with the conversion of other heathens. In Alma 19 the Lamanite queen demonstrates her great faith in Ammon when he tells her that her husband “is not dead, but he sleepeth in God.” This phrase appears in Jesus’ raising of Jairus’ daughter, a Gentile (Luke 8:52; Matt. 9:24; Mark 5:39). Ammon also echoes Christ’s words in commending the faith of Gentiles in two other New Testament stories: “Woman, there has not been such great faith among all the people of the Nephites” (Alma 19:10/ /Luke 7:9; Matt. 15:28).51 Thus the Book of Mormon spiritualizes three New Testament miracles of healing and raising the dead to describe the conversion of the spiritually dead.
In the conversions of Lamoni and his father, both Lamanite kings refer to God as “the Great Spirit” (Alma 18: 1-18, 22:7-11). European Americans ascribed this phrase to Native Americans as meaning God.52 Thus Book of Mormon readers verbally linked the two kings’ conversion with that of their nineteenth-century descendants. The phrase also reinforces their status as converted heathen. Another important feature of this story is its multiplication of events demonstrating God’s power. Ammon rescues the king’s sheep singlehandedly because he wants to “shew forth my power unto these my fellow servants, or the power which is in me … that I may lead them to believe in my words” (Alma 17:29). Upon hearing the report, Lamoni asks, “Where is that man that hath such power?” (Alma 18:8). Ammon further displays God’s power by reading the king’s thoughts. These demonstrations make the king quite receptive to Ammon’s message.
During the next episode, three separate instances of falling (“being overpowered by the spirit”) further reinforce the message of God’s power. Abish, a Lamanite woman, rushes to tell the people of these extraordinary events to “cause them to believe in the power of God” [p.141](Alma 19: 17). One member of the gathering crowd seeks to kill the fallen Ammon, but God strikes him dead. The people marvel, “What could be the cause of this great power?” (Alma 19:24). Lamoni’s preaching convinces the audience that this display of power is from God. Thus the power of God dominates both this narrative and the conversion of Alma to convict and convert both heathen and rebel.
Lamoni’s Father (Alma 21·22)
Ammon’s brother Aaron preaches to Lamoni’s father who is king of all the Lamanites. He also is converted after falling “as if he were dead.” The conversion of Lamoni’s father is a truncated version of Lamoni’s conversion, thus demonstrating the formal and conventional character of the conversion narratives. However, it contains neither explicit discussions of God’s power nor biblical parallels. The innocent faith of the heathen converts is manifest in the narratives of Lamoni and his father, contrasted to the hardheartedness of the Nephite dissenters in Alma 23.
Lamanite Conversion by Nephi and Lehi (Helaman 5)
In Helaman 5, Nephi and Lehi, sons of Helaman, journey to the center of the Lamanite territory to preach to them. They are cast into prison and are about to be executed when they are saved by a divine fire that surrounds them. God’s power is further manifest in an earthquake and a cloud of darkness. A voice from heaven preaches repentance, which causes the people to repent. Angels then descend to minister to the newly converted Lamanites. We find in this mass conversion several evangelical phrases and symbols: a cloud of darkness, laying down the weapons of rebellion, a voice speaking peace to the soul, and the Pentecostal cry “What shall we do?” But in this particular story, these images are literal. There is a literal cloud of darkness. The voice is an external voice from heaven. The darkness literally turns to light. Literalness makes this account the most supernatural of the conversion narratives in the Book of Mormon. It is one of the many places in the Book of Mormon that the Lamanites act as a symbol of the natural man. But it is clear that the literal images still reflect an inner state: “Yea, they were as if in the midst of a flaming fire, yet it did harm them not … and they were filled as if with fire” (Hel. 5:44-45).
This account is the last major conversion narrative before the com-[p.142]ing of Christ, and it is structurally parallel to that visit. In both, the still, small voice of God initially speaks three times from the heavens (the third utterance could not be repeated by humans), the people are in darkness, the voice is accompanied by shaking of the earth or the people, and angels descend and minister to hundreds of witnesses (Hel. 5:22-52; 3 Ne. 8:1-17:25). These descriptions of the divine voice as still and small parallel 1 Kings 19:12 and the voice of God introducing his beloved son in the New Testament. In other words, this conversion narrative looks very much like Christ’s future visit. Both display the same miraculous and divine visual manifestations because the narrator uses both to provide visual proofs of the truth. In Helaman 5:41, the narrative proves the necessity of repentance and faith in Christ. The large number of witnesses in both Helaman 5 and in 3 Nephi 17:25 indicates that the text also acts as an apologue. The narrator spells out the proof purpose of the text at the story’s end: “And they were bid to go forth and marvel not, neither should they doubt. And it came to pass that they did go forth, and did minister unto the people, declaring throughout all the regions round about, all the things which they had heard and seen, insomuch that the more part of the Lamanites were convinced of them, because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received” (vv. 49-50).
A final piece of evidence that these public, empirical events are intended as proofs is. found in the nineteenth-century visionary phrase “heard and seen.” (See chap. 2.)
Symbolism of Conversion
I have interpreted the Book of Mormon conversion narratives in the context of the rhetoric, theology, and verbal formulas’ of early nineteenth-century evangelical conversion narratives. This social and historical setting both helps interpret and distorts the message of the Book of Mormon. It helps interpret the book because understanding the audience and setting of any literary work can provide inferences about the text’s meanings. But the appeal to such a narrow setting also distorts the message of the book because the Book of Mormon is attempting to portray conversion as a universal experience. I must therefore examine that claim to do justice to Nephite evangelical religion.
It is clear from works in anthropology, theology, and the history of religions by such authors as Victor Turner, Paul Tillich, and Mircea [p.143]Eliade (among many others) that the conversion process is, in some sense, universal, as the Book of Mormon claims. It is beyond the scope of this book to summarize the ritual process of this transformation; but it is appropriate to note briefly some symbols that underscore the Nephite understanding that conversion was necessary for salvation. It should be clear from the nineteenth-century examples already cited that the Book of Mormon employs a system of symbols that reveals in narrative form an understanding of the process required for individual salvation. We have seen the evangelical symbols of dark clouds and sin as bondage, and the imagery of the “natural man.” I will call them existential symbols of sin and guilt.
The conversion process is the means of overcoming personal sin by transformation into a New Being. While the Book of Mormon conversions use a narrow historical form and a narrow set of theological phrases, their essential features demonstrate that this religious experience is broader than its narrow forms and particular theological distinctions. The symbolism of New Being is part of a ritual process of transformation that is both participatory and transformational. To be born again is to part with the luxury of considering oneself a victim of either circumstances or of the fall of Adam and Eve. Even to modern readers who reject the Book of Mormon’s teachings of the literal historical Adam and Eve as the source of the natural man, this narrative still provides a symbolic expression of the conquest of evil in the form of personal guilt and sin through the transformation of New Being. I await the time when scholars will place the Nephite message of the universal nature of conversion in its broadest anthropological and mythological settings. But until then, we can still participate in this strange and liminal ritual by relishing those provocative and exaggerated Nephite images of the captivity and death of the “natural man” with which the Book of Mormon expresses the essence of human existence. It is the role of these symbols, as they have so often demonstrated over the past 150 years, to summon numinous powers as artifacts of transformation and to stimulate thought about the nature of salvation and damnation. As these symbols work in a narrative/ritual, we find one of the ways that the Book of Mormon steps beyond a narrow historical setting to make universal statements about human existence.
1. “New Being” is not an evangelical term but rather a theological summary of the existential conquest of self-estrangement inherent in evangelical religion and Christianity in general. See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vols. 1-3 (Evanston, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1967).
2. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 4, 198.
3. Mark D. Thomas, “The Meaning of Revival Language in the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone 8 (May-June 1983): 19-25.
4. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. 3, trans. by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellaner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
5. “Camp Meeting at Compo, Connecticut,” Methodist Magazine 8 (Nov. 1825): 437.
6. Peter Cartwright, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (1856; reprinted New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), 207-209.
7. Charles Finney, A Sermon, Preached in the Presbyterian Church at Troy March 4, 1827 (Troy, NY: Wm. F. Geddes, 1827).
8. Bernard A. Weisberger, They Gathered at the River: The Story of the Great Revivalists and Their Impact upon Religion in America (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1958), 53.
9. See Frederick A. Norwood, Sourcebook of American Methodism (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1982), for examples of the use of these words.
10. Evangelical sermons were “plain” in two ways. First, they were simple and easily understood, and, second, they confronted sin and individual sinners directly and powerfully. The Book of Mormon uses plain in both senses. For examples of the first, see 1 Ne. 13:26-29, 13:34-40, 14:23; 2 Ne. 25:4, 26:33, 32:7; Mosiah 2:40; Alma 13:23; Moro. 7:15. For the second, see 2 Ne. 1:26, 9:47, 33:5; Jac. 4:13-14; Enos 1:23; Alma 14:2.
11. George Peck, Early Methodism Within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference from 1788 to 1828 (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1860), 72-120.
12. Lorenzo Dow, The Dealings of God, Man and the Devil (Norwich, CT: Wm. Faulkner, 1854), 20, 83; John N. Maffit, Tears of Contrition; or Sketches of the Life of John N. Maffit (New London, CT: Samuel Green, 1821),30,73; David Marks, Life of David Marks (Limerick, ME, 1831), 77-78.
13. “Camp meetings on the Champlain District,” Letter from the Rev. Buel Goodsell to the Editors, dated Charlotte, 19 Oct. 1825, Methodist Magazine 8 (Dec. 1825): 483-85.
14. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 190-259. Paul believes in the universality of sin and human slavery to sin, but he does not appeal to totally corrupted human nature as [p.145]its source. Paul’s conception of human nature is more ambiguous than the theology of innate depravity presents itself.
15. James Erwin, Reminiscences of Early Circuit Life (Toledo, OH: Spear, Johnson, 1884), 171.
16. Ezra Stiles Ely, A Contrast Between Calvinism and Hopkimianism (New York: S. Whiting, 1811), 4849, 74; John Wesley, The Doctrine of Original Sin, According to Scripture, Reason, and Experience in Answer to Dr. Taylor (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1817), 288, 351-64; Jonathan Crowther, A True and Complete Portraiture of Methodism (New York: Daniel Hitt and Thomas Ware, 1813), 152-55; Robert A. Baker, ed., A Baptist Source Book (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1966), 14. For Methodist views on human nature, see Robert E. Chiles, Theological Transformation in American Methodism 1790-1935 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1965); Leland Scott, “The Message of Early American Methodism,” in The History of American Methodism, edited by Emory Stevens Bucke (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1964).
17. Nathaniel Taylor, “Concio ad Clerum: A Sermon” in Theology in America: The Major Protestant Voices from Puritanism to Neo-Orthodoxy, edited by Sydney Ahlstrom (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 213-49.
18. Qtd. in Peck, Early Methodism, 73-74.
19. Representative examples include Methodist Magazine 8 (Dec. 1825): 449-90; Joshua Bradley, Accounts of Religious Revivals in Many Parts of the United States from 1815 to 1818 (Albany, NY: G. J. Loomis 1819), 95, 114-16; Marks, Life of David Marks, 122, 161; Martha Sonntag Bradley, ‘‘‘Seizing Sacred Space’: Women’s Engagement in Early Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Summer 1994): 67.
20. Charles A. Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion’s Harvest Time (1955; reprinted Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 260-61.
21. Bradley, “‘Seizing Sacred Space.’”
22. Rev. Samuel Merwin, “Revival of Religion in Baltimore, MD.,” Methodist Magazine 8 (Dec. 1825): 441, 487-88.
23. Erwin, Reminiscences of Early Circuit Life, 82.
24. Qtd. in William Warren Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, Vol. 4: The Methodists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 223-24.
25. See, for example, Peck, Early Methodism; Bradley, Accounts of Religious Revivals.
26. Erwin, Reminiscences of Early Circuit Life, 156. These experiences occurred in New York State in the early 1800s.
27. Clarke, The Holy Bible.
28. Marks, Life of David Marks, 53.
29. Qtd. in Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting, appen. 2.
30. Qtd. in Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, 4:107.
[p.146]31. Marks, Life of David Marks, 23.
32. Erwin, Reminiscences of Early Circuit Life, 159.
33. Bradley, Accounts of Religious Revivals, 80.
34. Methodist Magazine 9 (Apr. 1826): 125.
35. Elizabeth Peck, “Biography. Memoir of Miss Elizabeth Peck,” Methodist Magazine, Aug. 1823, 290-95; see also Maffit, Tears of Contrition, 67-68, for a similar use of “weapons of rebellion.”
36. Qtd. in Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, 4:14142; see also Norwood, Sourcebook of American Methodism, 180.
37. Bradley, Accounts of Religious Revivals, 14-16; see also Marks, Life of David Marks, 163.
38. George Shadford, “Memoir,” Methodist Magazine 1 (Sept. 1816): 648.
39. Jacob Young, Autobiography of a Pioneer (Cincinnati, OH, 1857).
40. For a representative example, see Bradley, A Sketch on the Life of Steven H. Bradley, 87-88. Here a former universalist compares his life prior to conversion as being “chief among sinners”—a phrase used by Paul to describe his life before conversion.
41. For an example see Bradley, A Sketch on the Life of Steven H. Bradley, 46.
42. Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting, 132, 192.
43. Ibid., 202-203; John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 7: Hymns (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 338-39.
44. For a representative example, see John Colby, Lift, Experience, and Travels of John Colby (Rochester, New York: David Marks Jr., 1827), 17.
45. Bradley, Accounts of Religious Revivals, 152.
46. Ether 3:15 uses “image of God” in a different sense.
47. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981), 52.
48. Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modem Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Spring 1987): 87-100; John A. Tvedtnes, A Nephite Feast of Tabernacles (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1983); Stephen D. Ricks, The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin’s Address (Mosiah 1-6) (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1983); Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 295-310.
49. For a discussion of “the prayer of faith” among the “new measures,” see Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950), 173-84.
50. David P. Wright, “The Poetics of Alma 30,” unpublished manuscript, photocopy in my possession, used by permission, points out that it is typical for the Book of Mormon to describe a character first, rather than in the course of the action, to make the narrative plain to the reader.
[p.147]51. This story also contains a few phrases from the raising of Lazarus (Alma 19:5, 9/ /John 11:26, 39).
52. For two representative examples, see Norwood, Sourcebook of American Methodism, 180; Josiah Priest, The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed (Albany, NY: E. & E. Hosford, 1825), 439.