Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
Abinadi, Prophet Martyr
Before describing the exodus of Limhi’s people to Zarahemla, Mormon inserts the entire record of Zeniff (Mosiah 9-22), featuring the teachings and martyrdom of the prophet Abinadi. The topic is not entirely unexpected since Joseph Smith’s revelations disclose his fears regarding his own possible murder (Book of Commandments 4:7, 11; 5:14; hereafter BofC; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 5:22, 33; 6:29-30; hereafter D&C). Of this period, Smith later recalled: “We had been threatened with being mobbed, from time to time, and this too by professors of religion, and their intentions of mobbing us, were only counteracted by the influence of my wife’s father’s family (under divine providence) who had become very friendly to me and were opposed to mobs; and were willing that I should be allowed to continue the work of translation without interruption: And therefore offered and promised us protection from all unlawful proceedings as far as in them lay.”1 The dynamic Smith describes here, of being protected from physical injury by providence and friends, is played out in Abinadi’s encounter with wicked King Noah and his priests.
Zeniff’s record covers seventy-eight years of history, flashing back to about 200 B.C. to the beginning of his migration and the resettlement of Lehi-Nephi. The first part (chaps. 9-10) is written by Zeniff in first person, after which Mormon apparently takes over as narrator. A puzzle remains as to who kept the record following Zeniff’s death since his son and successor, Noah, is said to have been unrighteous.
Zeniff describes two attempts to resettle the homeland. In the last attempt, the Lamanite king, Laman, allows Zeniff and his people to rebuild the city of Lehi-Nephi. What at first seems a generous gesture later works to the detriment of the Nephite settlers. With hindsight, Zeniff comments that permission to resettle the abandoned Nephite city was motivated by “the cunning and the craftiness of king Laman, to bring my people into bondage” (9:10). For twelve years Zeniff’s people live in peace and prosperity, then fearing Zeniff’s strength and wanting to profit from the industry of his people, Laman “began to stir up his people that they should contend with my people” (v. 13). Some of Zeniff’s group are attacked by Lamanites while watering their flocks; some livestock and corn are stolen (v. 14). Zeniff organizes his people for battle, and only after experiencing great losses on both sides is peace again established (vv. 15-19).
One is reminded of Smith’s situation in Harmony with Isaac Hale, who was not particularly friendly but nonetheless allowed Smith to settle on his land and live in a house formerly occupied by one of his sons. If Smith harbored suspicions about Hale’s motives, they were undoubtedly confirmed when Hale subsequently spoke of evicting him. Timely financial aid rescued Smith momentarily, but it also increased his obligation to Hale—all of which must have seemed like servitude and bondage to Smith. Nevertheless, father-in-law and son-in-law reached an uncomfortable truce that allowed Smith to work on his Book of Mormon. Hale had good reason to intervene and stem the tide of persecution, which may have included the theft of livestock and corn, not only for his daughter’s sake but also because he was now financially entwined with his son-in-law. This would soon change.
Zeniff’s description of his enemies is typical of the stereotyped images of Native Americans current in Smith’s day. The Lamanites are not only “a lazy and an idolatrous people” (9:12) but “a wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people” (10:12). To the civilized Nephite settlers, their appearance was primitive and frightening with “their heads shaved” and the fact “that they were naked; and they were girded with a leathern girdle about their loins” (v. 8). Zeniff undoubtedly expresses Smith’s own sentiments about Native Americans, informed by his Calvinistic Puritan background.2
Zeniff gives insight into why Lamanites hated white settlers, explaining that the Lamanites were kept “wroth” with the Nephites because of “the traditions of their fathers.” The Lamanites held that Nephi “wronged” Laman and Lemuel on two counts: for having taken “the ruling of the people out of their hands” and for preventing access to the brass plates (10:12-17). As the result of entrenched religious views, Smith was greeted by strong resistance both in Harmony and Manchester. There were people who did not want him challenging the status quo or presuming to be a spiritual leader. In Manchester, the money-diggers were especially angry because Smith had kept the plates from them, contrary to his obligations as one of their members. Now Joseph had not only become unwelcome in his own homeland but in Emma’s as well.
Having achieved détente with the Lamanites, Zeniff’s people continued to prosper as farmers and in making cloth (10:4-5), the very occupations of Joseph and Emma. However, King Laman’s death and succession by a son of the same name3 bring an end to the ten-year truce. Laman II orders his men to attack the Nephite city. When Zeniff’s people repel them (vv. 6-22), their success is attributed to their faith and trust in God. But this small kingdom-city is about to experience moral decay, decline, and the loss of divine protection.
After reigning about fifteen years, Zeniff inexplicably confers the kingdom upon his wicked son Noah. In contrast to King Benjamin and Mosiah, Noah is an evil, gluttonous leader who unjustly taxes his people “one fifth part of all they possessed” in order to support his extravagant lifestyle which includes wives and concubines (contrary to Deut. 17:17) and lavish building projects. Noah “changed the affairs of the kingdom” (11:4) by dismissing the priests who had been consecrated by his father and appointing “new ones in their stead, such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts” (v. 5). Noah’s priests institute idolatry, teach Universalism, and idly pass their time with “harlots” (vv. 6, 14).
Noah may be a composite of people Joseph knew, including to some degree Isaac Hale and Joseph Smith Sr. While King Noah’s wealth, power, and disposition toward Abinadi could be seen as exaggerations of Hale’s comfortable circumstances and relationship with Joseph Jr., some of Noah’s character traits, especially his excessive drinking, indolence, and belief in Universalism, were similar to the habits and beliefs of Joseph Sr.4
Noah’s name betrays another source of inspiration and points to the attribute that is intended to be most emphasized: drinking. Both King Noah and the biblical Noah possess a fondness for wine. Even the Book of Mormon’s wording seems dependant on the Genesis account, stating that King Noah “planted vineyards round about the land; and he built winepresses, and made wine in abundance; and therefore he became a wine-bibber [cf. Matt. 11:19], and also his people” (11:15). In Genesis, Noah “planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent” (9:20-21). The Genesis account explains that Ham discovered and ridiculed his naked father, while his brothers Shem and Japheth took a blanket and covered their father. For these deeds, Noah blesses Shem and Japheth and curses Ham. The comparison between biblical Noah and Joseph Sr. is so obvious that even Joseph Sr., in blessing Joseph Jr. in 1834, referenced Noah and Shem. Alluding to a time when he was “out of the way through wine,” Joseph Sr. said of his son: “Thou hast stood by thy father, and like Shem, would have covered his nakedness, rather than see him exposed to shame.”5
Just how complete or exaggerated the image of King Noah is as applied to Joseph Sr. remains speculative. Certainly, Joseph Sr.’s excessive drinking was a matter of public record and his repeated attempts to become wealthy were apparent to all familiar with his history. Noah’s appointment of priests who were consumed with “riotous living” could allude to Joseph Sr.’s affinity for Universalist preachers. But the significance of Noah’s plural wives and concubines, perhaps indicating a belief in polygamy, is in an area where one might expect little evidence. If Joseph Sr. did believe in “spiritual wifery” or concubinage—concepts that found ample expression among religious adventurers in Europe beginning in the Middle Ages and later in America—there is no direct evidence of it.6 However, as early as 1799, Joseph Sr. may have joined an Anabaptist Society in Tunbridge, Vermont,7 which historically defended a belief in polygamy.8
Perhaps the testimony of Levi Lewis, son of Nathaniel Lewis, provides a clue as to Joseph Jr.’s early beliefs on marriage. Lewis, whose wife Sophia was present when Emma lost her infant, remembered hearing Joseph and Martin Harris agree that “adultery was no crime.” While this may be exaggerated, Lewis more specifically accused Joseph of attempting to “seduce” Eliza Winters, a close friend of Emma, and claimed that on at least one occasion Martin Harris defended Joseph’s behavior toward the seventeen-year-old by saying “he did not blame Smith for his (Smith’s) attempt to seduce Eliza Winters &c.”9 Back in Palmyra, Lucy Harris would accuse her husband of paying improper attention to a neighbor’s wife.10 In light of Smith’s later introduction of plural marriage, there may have been more than a Universalist’s disregard for the authority of the commandments operating here. Smith’s attempt to find a compromise between his mother’s orthodoxy and his father’s liberalism might have included a struggle with “spiritual wifery.”11 Where he treated Universalism differently in public than in private, maybe he similarly condemned polygamy publicly and in private condoned it under certain conditions.
If King Noah embodied traits and beliefs that Joseph disliked about his father, they also represented behavior for which he himself would have felt the most guilt. They were exactly what Isaac Hale disliked in Joseph: his excessive drinking, for which he was already gaining a reputation, even in Harmony;12 the fact that he neglected his work or, as Hale expressed it, attempted to “live upon the spoils of those who swallowed the deception”; and perhaps most detestable to Hale, a brief glimpse at what would become Joseph’s most controversial future doctrine in his behavior toward young Eliza Winters. The character of King Noah, especially his concubinage, provides just a hint of a subject that will resurface in more striking form (cf. Jacob 2).13
Following God’s command, Abinadi prophesies destruction upon King Noah and his people unless they “repent in sackcloth and ashes” (11:25; cf. Matt. 11:21). The prophet’s message angers Noah, who commands his men to bring him “hither, that I may slay him” (v. 28). Abinadi escapes into the forest, from where, two years later, he emerges from seclusion dressed in a disguise and resumes prophesying. This time he is captured and brought in bonds before Noah and his priests to be interrogated concerning his teachings.
Smith returned to Harmony after having been away for two years, and this time he came in a prophet’s mantel. Residents of the small rural community rejected him for the same reason, in part, that caused Abinadi’s martyrdom, which was because he taught that “Christ was the God, the Father of all things … and that God should come down among the children of men, and take upon him flesh and blood” (7:26-27), as previously stated by King Benjamin (3:5-10). Here again we see a conception of the godhead known as modalism or Sabellianism, which confounds the “person” of the Father with the “person” of the Son.14 Certainly Methodists such as Nathaniel Lewis and Isaac Hale would have regarded Smith’s modalism as an attack on their trinitarian views, connecting it with the Sabellian heresy. Lucy Smith may have alluded to this when she told a Presbyterian council that “the different denominations are very much opposed to us. … The Methodists also come, and they rage, for they worship a God without body or parts, and they know that our faith comes in contact with this principle.”15 Through Abinadi, Smith elaborated on King Benjamin’s modalistic teachings.
In bringing forth evidence to condemn Abinadi, Noah’s priests argue: “O king, what great evil hast thou done, or what great sins have thy people committed, that we should be condemned of God or judged of this man? And now, O king, behold, we are guiltless, and thou, O king, hast not sinned; therefore this man has lied concerning you, and he has prophesied in vain” (12:13-14). Thus, despite the king’s concubines and their own harlots, the priests, much as Levi Lewis reported of Smith and Harris, argue that they have committed no crime.
While Abinadi is confined in prison, the king consults with his priests regarding the course of action to take with the annoying prophet. The priests conclude that they will question Abinadi, “that they might cross him, that thereby they might have wherewith to accuse him” (12:19). But they are no match for Abinadi, who “answered them boldly, and withstood all their questions, yea, to their astonishment; for he did withstand them in all their questions, and did confound them in all their words” (v. 19).
Undoubtedly, Smith’s claims drew similar cross examinations, not only during his 1826 trial but also from the residents of Harmony. In any case, Smith failed to confound his enemies. The story of Abinadi may reflect a psychological defense against failure and frustration, which Robert D. Anderson variously calls “omnipotent fantasy,” “compensatory fantasy,” “fantasy conquest,” and “fantasy reversal.”16 In other words, Smith could relieve feelings of frustration and humiliation through characters in his book accomplishing what he could not do in real life: to vanquish, powerfully and convincingly, his enemies. However, the price for doing so in Abinadi’s case was death.
One of the priests commenced by asking Abinadi the meaning of a passage from the book of Isaiah beginning: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings”—which seemed to contradict Abinadi’s message of repentance or destruction. The balance of the passage reads: “The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (12:21, 24//Isa. 52:7, 10). To some in Smith’s day, as with Noah’s priests, there was an implication of universal salvation in this passage.17
Abinadi’s opening response was not unlike Jesus’ statement to the questioning Nicodemus: “Are you priests, and pretend to teach this people, and to understand the spirit of prophesying, and yet desire to know of me what these things mean?” (12:25; cf. John 3:10). After accusing them of “perverting the ways of the Lord,” Abinadi asks Noah’s priests: “What teach ye this people?” (v. 27), to which they respond: “We teach the law of Moses” (v. 28).
The prophet charges them with hypocrisy: “If ye teach the law of Moses why do ye not keep it? Why do ye set your hearts upon riches? Why do ye commit whoredoms and spend your strength with harlots?” (12:29). He poses his own trick question: “Doth salvation come by the law of Moses? What say ye?” (12:31). Following their affirmative reply, Abinadi begins to quote the ten commandments from Exodus 20 (vv. 34-36//Exod. 20:2-4). Upon reciting the second commandment, Abinadi pauses to castigate the priests for their idolatry (v. 37), which angers Noah. “Away with this fellow, and slay him,” the king orders. “For what have we to do with him, for he is mad” (13:1).
Like Nephi previously, Abinadi warns: “Touch me not, for God shall smite you if ye lay your hands upon me, for I have not delivered the message which the Lord sent me to deliver. … I must fulfil the commandments wherewith God has commanded me” (13:3, 4). As an outward sign that Noah’s men should heed this warning, Abinadi’s “face shone with exceeding luster, even as Moses’ did while in the mount of Sinai, while speaking with the Lord” (v. 5; cf. Exod. 34:29-30). Smith is said to have at times achieved a similar, though less dramatic, appearance when, in deep thought, the blood seemingly rushed from his face, his skin looking almost transparent and luminescent to some followers.18
Frightened, Noah’s men dared not touch Abinadi, who declared: “Ye see that ye have not power to slay me, therefore I finish my message … and then it matters not whither I go, if it so be that I am saved” (13:7, 9). Despite threats, Smith—like Abinadi—is confident that he will live long enough to accomplish his mission, which at the time was completing the book (BofC 4:11; cf. D&C 5:33-34). This feeling of divine protection persisted until Smith’s death. Reflecting on his narrow escape from Missouri mobs in a sermon delivered in May 1844, he remarked: “God will always protect me until my mission is fulfilled.”19 In following God’s commands, Smith would be assured of “eternal life” and would be “lifted up at the last day” (BofC 4:7, 11; cf. D&C 5:22, 35). More than mere rhetoric, these sources likely reflect a real belief that God would protect his life. If detractors thought they could dissuade him from his project, they underestimated the prophet’s commitment. He believed in his work, believed that his own salvation depended on his success, and was prepared to do whatever he had to. Whatever his fate, he would face it as bravely as he had faced the surgeon’s knife.
After reciting the ten commandments (13:12-24; cf. Exod. 20:4-17), Abinadi declares that the priests did not teach the people to keep the commandments, otherwise “the Lord would not have caused me to come forth and to prophesy evil concerning this people” (vv. 25, 26). Smith, like Abinadi, speaks “with power and authority from God” (13:6), which Isaac Hale and the Reverend Lewis interpreted to be presumptuous and arrogant. It is likely that Smith’s words had the same effect on people as Abinadi’s: “I perceive that … my words fill you with wonder and amazement, and with anger” (vv. 7-8).
Abinadi proceeds to define Isaiah’s “good tidings” in terms that were understood by New Testament writers (Rom. 10:15; Acts 13:32) as well as by opponents of Universalism. One must keep the law of Moses as God commanded, Abinadi explains, but “salvation doth not come by the law alone” (v. 28). All mankind would “unavoidably perish … were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people” (v. 28). Sounding more like an apostle of the new covenant than an Old Testament prophet, Abinadi explains that the “performances and ordinances” of the law of Moses (v. 30) are but “types of things to come” (v. 31; cf. Col. 2:17; Heb. 9:11; 10:1).
Abinadi asks: “Did not Moses prophesy … concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people?” (13:33). Actually, Moses predicted that “the Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me” (Deut. 18:15), which is thought to have been an introduction to prophetic leadership generally and not a messianic prophesy. While Jews did not connect Moses’ “Prophet” with the Messiah (see John 1:20-21; 7:40-41), early Christians did (Acts 3:22; 7:37). Thus, only from a New Testament perspective can one say Moses predicted the coming of the “Messiah,” an observation supported by the Book of Mormon’s dependence on Peter’s words in Acts 3:22 paraphrasing Deuteronomy 18:15. Abinadi’s comment that “even all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began—have … spoken more or less concerning these things” (v. 33) paraphrases Acts 3:21, which does not appear in Deuteronomy.
Abinadi’s assertion that Moses taught that “God should redeem his people” is puzzling enough that it deserves further attention. Subsequent texts suggest that this is Smith’s interpolation of Matthew 1:21: “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins”—a popular Universalist proof-text. Elhanan Winchester interpreted this passage as a proclamation of universal salvation, stating that since “all men are certainly the people of Jesus, … consequently he shall save all mankind from their sins.”20 The orthodox rejected this interpretation. Charles Marford, a lay Methodist preacher from Victor, New York (about ten miles from the Smith home in Manchester), argued about 1819: “Are all to be redeemed, and to be ransomed of the Lord? None but those that sincerely and truly repent of their sins, and forsake them in this life, and return unto the Lord, will obtain the pardon of their sins. Christ is a Savior to save his people from their sins, and not in them; and those that think otherwise will be overthrown with that dreadful overthrow with which God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.”21 Returning to the Book of Mormon, Abinadi takes up the task of identifying who the Lord’s people are. In so doing, he again alludes to Matthew 1:21, saying the Lord will come to “redeem his people” (15:11) and that he will die “to redeem them from their transgressions” (v. 12).22 Although presented subtlely by Abinadi, Matthew 1:21 appears again in a more explicitly anti-Universalist setting (cf. Alma 11:36-37).23
In reference to Old Testament prophets, Abinadi asks: “Have they not said that God himself should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man, and go forth in mighty power upon the face of the earth?” (13:34). Jews of Lehi’s day would not have connected the messiah with God. God would send the messiah, but the messiah was not God. Nothing in the Old Testament would have prepared Jews for this New Testament concept, which Jewish leaders rejected as blasphemous when they heard it. Perhaps Smith alluded to the New Testament interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 concerning the virgin who would conceive and bear the child named “Immanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matt. 1:20-23).
Again speaking of Old Testament prophets, Abinadi asks: “Yea, and have they not said also that he should bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, and that he, himself, should be oppressed and afflicted?” (13:35). This passage is difficult since Judaism would not adopt a belief in resurrection until the Hellenistic period (Dan. 12:1-2). Prior to that time, the image of the dead returning to life was used only metaphorically to refer to a rescue from near death (e.g., Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6; Pss. 16:10-11; 49:15; 73:24) or the triumph of the righteous over the wicked (Job 19:25-27) and Israel over her enemies (Isa. 26:19; Ezek. 37).
Remaining vague about which prophets spoke of a resurrection, potential problems are avoided. The resurrection passage closest at hand was Isaiah 26:19, which for example conflicts with Abinadi’s teaching of universal resurrection. Speaking of Israel, Isaiah declares: “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.” Isaiah compares the revival of Israel to the regeneration of the soil that follows the morning dew. Israel would rise again and become fruitful. However, Isaiah exults in the knowledge that Israel’s enemies are gone forever (26:14).
Another difficulty arises from Abinadi’s statement that the Messiah will be “oppressed and afflicted” (13:35). A suffering Messiah is a New Testament concept, inconsistent with the conquering Messiah expected by Jews. Even the Jewish apostles had difficulty with Jesus’ death until they were said to have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. To resolve the conflict, New Testament writers drew on the “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah, especially those in chapter 53 (cf. Isa. 53:4//Matt. 8:17; Isa. 53:5-6//1 Pet. 2:24-25; Isa. 53:7-8//Acts 8:32-33; Isa. 53:12//Mark 15:28), and interpreted them as references to Jesus rather than to the prophet Isaiah himself, which is what is indicated by context. Smith has the prophet Abinadi quote chapter 53 of Isaiah in its entirety (Mosiah 14). In the familiar style of a revivalist preacher, Abinadi follows the proof-text with a sermon drawing on the text in order to deliver the good news of the gospel.
The good news for revivalists was that Jesus had atoned for sin. Belief in Jesus’ atonement was tied to his divine status, for the death of a mortal could not satisfy infinite justice. It had to be an infinite sacrifice. Those in Smith’s day who rejected Jesus’ divinity, such as the Unitarians and most Universalists, also rejected the claim that God himself had taken on human form to suffer and become a sacrifice for sin. Perhaps responding to the Unitarian rejection of trinitarianism as irrational, Smith championed modalism, giving the clearest definition through Abinadi when he declares that “God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people” (15:1; cf. 3:5). Expanding on Benjamin’s teaching that Jesus is both Father and Son (3:5-8), Abinadi explains:
And because he dwelleth in the flesh he shall be called the Son of God, having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son—the Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—and they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God … the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. (15:1-5, 7)
Abinadi clearly states that God the Father will come down to earth as spirit to dwell “in the flesh” as the Son.24 Joseph Smith’s theology will evolve and change, but his early modalism grew out of a need to defend the deity of Jesus against Unitarianism. Tied to Jesus’ deity was the orthodox belief in the “infinite atonement,” then under attack by Universalists and Unitarians. Given this connection, it is not surprising that Abinadi follows his discussion of Jesus’ divinity with a discussion about his atonement. Speaking with the hindsight of a New Testament writer, Abinadi declares that the Son will be mocked, scourged, and “led, yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (15:6; cf. Isa. 53:7; Matt. 26:63). Then the Son will be slain—“crucified”—but being God, he “breaketh the bands of death” (vv. 7, 8). Thus, the Son has “power to make intercession for the children of men” (v. 8; cf. Isa. 53:12), “having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice” (v. 9). While Abinadi’s definition of the atonement was not unique to Smith’s contemporaries—Anselm had advanced the theory of satisfaction as early as the twelfth century—it was nevertheless often employed against Unitarian-Universalists.25
Abinadi then moves to show that salvation is not universal but is limited to the righteous. Possibly playing off the proof-text of Noah’s priests—“all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isa. 52:10//Mosiah 12:24; emphasis added)—Abinadi alludes to Isaiah 53:10—“when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin he shall see his seed” (Mosiah 14:10; emphasis added). Abinadi asks: “And who shall be his seed?” (15:10), then answers in a way that contains a message for Smith’s detractors: “Whosoever has heard the words of the prophets, yea, … all those who have hearkened unto their words, … these are his seed, or … the heirs of the kingdom of God” (v. 11). In other words, there is no salvation if one rejects the prophets.
Abinadi explains that temporal salvation is universal, for all humanity will be resurrected but spiritual salvation is restricted. His discussion draws anachronistically on the New Testament where, for example, his proclamation that resurrection is Jesus’ gift to all humankind borrows from the apostle Paul and is stated in past perfect tense: “And if Christ had not risen from the dead, or have broken the bands of death that the grave should have no victory, and that death should have no sting, there could have been no resurrection. But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ. … Even this mortal shall put on immortality, and this corruption shall put on incorruption” (16:7-8, 10; cf. 1 Cor. 15:53-57; Isa. 25:8).
Likewise, Abinadi’s exposition on the first and last resurrections, which concludes his address to Noah’s priests (15:21-16:15), comes anachronistically from Revelation 20. Only the righteous take part in the first resurrection, Abinadi declares, saying: “All the prophets, and all those that have believed in their words, or all those that have kept the commandments of God, shall come forth in the first resurrection … to dwell with God who has redeemed them” (15:22, 23). Like Benjamin, Abinadi includes in the first resurrection “they that have died before Christ came, in their ignorance, not having salvation declared unto them” and “little children” (15:24, 25; cf. 3:11, 16). After the resurrection, all humankind will be “brought to stand before God, to be judged of him according to their works whether they be good or whether they be evil” (16:10; cf. Rev. 20:13). Thus, while resurrection is universal, the wicked and the righteous will inherit different rewards. There is “the resurrection of endless life and happiness” and “the resurrection of endless damnation” (v. 11; cf. John 5:28-29).
Abinadi’s explanation of who would not take part in the first resurrection would have been especially meaningful to Universalists: “The Lord redeemeth none such that rebel against him and die in their sins [John 8:21]; … for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim” (15:26-27). Benjamin used similar language when he confirmed damnation for one who “remaineth and dieth in his sins” (2:33; also v. 38). The idea that those who die in sin cannot be saved was likewise used by anti-Universalists in Smith’s day. They based their argument on John 8:21, where Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come.” As cited previously, the Reverend Stephen I. Bradstreet of Cleveland, Ohio, used this passage in 1824 to argue that “those Jews to which Christ spake, are never to reach Heaven.”26 This argument reappears in a more clearly anti-Universalist context (cf. Alma 12:16; Moro. 10:26; 1 Ne. 15:33; 2 Ne. 9:38).27
Returning to Isaiah 52, which was the proof-text of Noah’s Universalist priests, Abinadi stretches out his hand and declares dramatically: “The time shall come when all shall see the salvation of the Lord [Isa. 52:10]; when every nation, kindred, tongue, and people shall see eye to eye and shall confess before God that his judgments are just [Isa. 52:8; 45:23; Rev. 19:2]. And then shall the wicked be cast out, and they shall have cause to howl, and weep, and wail, and gnash their teeth [Matt. 8:12]; and this because they would not hearken unto the voice of the Lord; therefore the Lord redeemeth them not” (16:1-2). Through the creative conflation of biblical texts, a response to a Universalist proof-text was formulated.
Abinadi concludes: “Therefore, if ye teach the law of Moses, also teach that it is a shadow of those things which are to come—Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father” (16:14-15). This concluding note would have displeased the Unitarian-Universalists of Smith’s day and would have angered the orthodox for its heresy.
After Abinadi finishes his sermon, Noah orders him killed. However, one of Noah’s younger priests, Alma, believes Abinadi’s words and urges the king to release the prophet. Angered by this, Noah orders his men to remove Alma from his court and execute him too. Alma escapes and records Abinadi’s words from the seclusion of the wilderness—perhaps referencing Cowdery’s scribal work and the author’s wish to live on after death through his works—although it remains puzzling how Alma can record the events that transpire after his escape.
Abinadi receives assistance from an unexpected source (Alma), just as Smith received providential protection from Emma’s family. Although they were not entirely friendly, the Hales acted as a barrier to Smith’s enemies as he labored in the wilderness. In 1 Nephi 7:19, Nephi is protected from his brothers and some of Ishmael’s family by “one of the daughters of Ishmael, yea, and also her mother, and one of the sons of Ishmael” who “did plead with my brethren, insomuch that they did soften their hearts; and they did cease striving to take away my life.” It is likely that Smith received a sympathetic hand from Emma’s mother, Elizabeth, and Emma’s older brother, Alva (Alvah), who had perhaps formed the closest relationship with Joseph while helping him move to Harmony. Besides the similarity in sound between Alma and Alva, the two names are related: Alva is the anglicized form of the Gaelic name “Almha.”28
Abinadi’s story ends in tragedy. After spending three days in prison, he is again brought before King Noah and ordered to recant his proclamation that “God himself should come down among the children of men” (17:8). Abinadi refuses, saying: “I will not recall the words which I have spoken unto you concerning this people, for they are true. … I will suffer even until death, and I will not recall the words, and they shall stand as a testimony against you. And if ye slay me ye will shed innocent blood, and this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day” (vv. 9, 10). Like Abinadi, Smith was immovable in carrying out his mission and believed that his own salvation depended upon it.
Seeing that Abinadi was willing to die for his cause, Noah considers freeing the prophet. The priests, who may be a representation of the Reverend Lewis in Harmony, prevent this from happening: “And it came to pass that they took [Abinadi] and bound him, and scourged his skin with faggots, yea, even unto death” (17:13), a well-established method of executing Christian martyrs.
Before succumbing to the flames, Abinadi prophesies that the priests’ descendants will execute other believers, after which they will be scattered, afflicted, and executed themselves (vv. 15-18). He then pronounces a curse upon his tormentors: “Behold, even as ye have done unto me, so shall it come to pass that … ye shall suffer, as I suffer, the pains of death by fire. Thus God executeth vengeance upon those that destroy his people. O God, receive my soul” (17:15, 18-19; cf. 13:10). Thus, he suffered a martyr’s death, “having sealed the truth of his words by his death” (v. 20).
The Book of Mormon does not stop here, but tells of an insurrection that leads to Noah’s execution by fire, partially fulfilling Abinadi’s prophecy (10:20). Narrowly escaping a similar fate, Noah’s priests flee to the wilderness (vv. 21, 23). More than fifty years later, descendants of these priests resurface to murder a group of recently converted Lamanites. Aroused by the mass murders, the Lamanites hunt down and kill these descendants of Noah’s priests in fulfillment of Abinadi’s prediction (Alma 25:1-12).
This raises an interesting parallel with Quakers, who were both persecuted and known for uttering prophetic curses against their enemies. Seventeenth-century Puritans branded them heretics, executing some and banishing others. Puritans interpreted their rivals’ every misfortune as a providence of God, but the charismatic Quakers outdid their foes by adding the element of prophecy and maledictions. For his role in the persecution of Quakers, Governor John Endicott became the target of numerous prophetic curses, so that after his untimely death, Quaker George Keith wrote approvingly: “One of these persecuted servants of the Lord, called Quakers, did plainly foretell, that the house of Governor Endicott, a greater persecutor, should be left desolate, and become a dunghill, as did accordingly come to pass, and hath been a real prophecy, divine justice and providence did so bring it about.”29 Another Quaker, George Bishop, gleefully recounted horrid details about Major General Humphry Adderton’s death when he was thrown from his horse and his brains were dashed out after passing a death sentence against Quakeress Mary Dyer. Bishop noted the irony of Adderton’s subsequent statement that “the judgments of the Lord God [predicted by the Quakers] are not come upon us yet.” For Bishop, this man’s death was a “dreadful example, to all that dare to persecute and make sport at the shedding of innocent blood, and the most cruel sufferings of the innocent, and to tempt the Lord concerning his judgments.” Bishop mockingly continued: “So lie thou there, thou Adderton, as an ensign for New England’s blood-suckers; and so let all thine enemies, O God, perish.”30 On a more general scale, Keith delighted in listing the catastrophes that befell the Puritans—the blighting of their wheat, Indian troubles, a smallpox epidemic which was foretold by a Quaker woman named Margaret Brewster, and the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay charter in 1684.31
Joseph Smith exhibited similar sentiments when he sermonized shortly before his death in 1844: “The Lord once told me that what I asked for I should have. I have been afraid to ask God to kill my enemies lest some of them should peradventure repent. I asked a short time since for the Lord to deliver me out of the hands of the governor of Missouri and if it must needs be to accomplish it to take him away, and the next news that came pouring down from there was [that] Governor Reynolds had shot himself. And I would now say beware O earth how you fight against the saints of God and shed innocent blood, for in the days of Elijah his enemies came upon him and fire was called down from heaven and destroyed them.”32
Notwithstanding Abinadi’s prediction and the curse he placed on his enemies, he was determined to die for his message. This was Smith’s stance in Harmony. Through Abinadi, Smith could say to his foes: “You can scorch my skin with faggots, even unto death if you like, but I will not deny the truth of my doctrine.” Lucy Smith exhibited the same determination when she made a similar statement to Deacon Beckwith in March 1830. As she recalled in her history: “Even [if] you should stick my body full of faggots and burn me at the stake I would declare that Joseph has that record and that I know it to be true as long as God gave me breath.”33 Of course, Joseph was not eager to become a martyr; he did what he could to discourage any enemy. In the face of physical threats, he reportedly warned his detractors in Harmony “that it was as bad to injure him as it was to injure Jesus Christ.”34 The story of Abinadi added another dimension to that warning—his death would bring down God’s wrath upon them and their posterity.
1. Joseph Smith, Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-1, 18, Joseph Smith Papers, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, UT (cf. Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003], 1:76-77; hereafter EMD).
4. Robert D. Anderson believes that Noah is Dr. Nathan Smith and that Abinadi is Alvin, although there is no knife imagery for Alvin (see Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999], 134-37). According to Harmony resident Jacob I. Skinner, Isaac Hale “also imbibed more tanglefoot than was compatible with patriarchal dignity and good example” ([Frederick G. Mather], “The Early Mormons. Joe Smith Operates at Susquehanna,” Binghamton Republican, 29 July 1880 (EMD 4:359).
6. I am particularly interested in the history of Christian polygamy, as opposed to the practice among Africans, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus. The following brief bibliography will show that polygamy, concubinage, and complex marriage pre-dated Smith’s practice: On Medieval polygamy, see James A. Brundage, “Concubinage and Marriage in Medieval Canon Law,” Journal of Medieval History 1 (1975): 1-17.
For seventeenth-century England, see John Butler, The True State of the Case of John Butler, B.D. A Minister of the true Church of England: In Answer to the Libel of Martha his sometimes Wife. Treating of a Marriage dissolved, and made Null by desertion, and of a Lawful Concubinage in a case of Necessity: wherein Lawful Marriage conveniently, or possibly cannot be Obtained (London, 1697); Anon., Concubinage and Poligamy Disprov’d: or, The Divine Institution of Marriage Betwixt one Man, and one woman only, Asserted. In Answer to a Book, writ by John Butler … wherein he maintains Concubinage to be Lawful … (London, 1698).
For eighteenth-century Europe, see Martin Maden, Thelyphthora: or, A Treatise on Female Ruin, 3 vols. (London, 1780-81); and John Cairncross, After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974).
Examples of early American polygamy are: Jacob Cochran, who introduced “spiritual matrimony” among his followers in Maine in about 1817 (Anon., “The Cochran Fantasy in York County [Maine],” 3 Aug. 1867, in Maine Historical Quarterly 20 [Summer 1980]: 30). John Humphrey Noyes, who with followers practiced a form of “group marriage” in the late 1830s in Oneida, New York, had roots to the Dutch spiritualist Henry Nicholas and his mid-sixteenth-century “Family of Love” (see Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century [New York: Oxford University Press, 1981], 72-122; Christopher W. Marsh, The Family of Love in English Society, 1550-1630 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994]). Robert Matthews, alias “Matthias the Prophet,” married another man’s wife in 1833 and visited Smith in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835 (Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Mathias [New York: Oxford University Press, 1994]; Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986], 9-10). For an 1837 letter discussing the advantages of polygamy, see “Enquirer,” Cleveland Liberalist 1 (4 Feb. 1837): 164, in George D. Smith, “Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-46: A Preliminary Demographic Report,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Spring 1994): 4. See also John Spurlock, Free Love, Marriage, and Middle-Class Radicalism in America, 1825-1860 (New York: New York University Press, 1988), esp. chapter 3: “Spiritual Wives and Elective Affinity: Perfectionist and Harmonist Transformation of Marriage” (73-106); and Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 20-21, 640-41.
8. In addition to the Munster Anabaptists, polygamy was advocated by the Davidians and Batenburges (see John Calvin, Treatises against the Anabaptists and against the Libertines, ed. and trans. by Benjamin Wirt Farley [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982], 107, n. 17, 171). See also D. Michael Quinn, “Socioreligious Radicalism of the Mormon Church: A Parallel to the Anabaptists,” in Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, eds., New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 374-75; and Smith, “Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy,” 2-3.
9. Levi Lewis, statement, in “Mormonism,” Susquehanna Register and Northern Pennsylvanian 9 (1 May 1834): 1 (EMD 4:296-97). Elizabeth neither confirmed nor denied Lewis’s accusation when interviewed in 1880. See [Frederick G. Mather], “The Early Mormons. Joe Smith Operates at Susquehanna,” Binghamton Republican, 29 July 1880 (EMD 4:346-60). She married Elisha Squires (d. 1871) in 1837 and was still living with her only son, Stanley, in Oakland in 1887 (Rhamanthus M. Stocker, Centennial History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania [Philadelphia: R. T. Peck and Co., 1887], 557; see also EMD 4:346).
12. Levi Lewis, for example, testified that he “saw him (Smith) intoxicated at three different times while he was composing the Book of Mormon” (“Mormonism,” Susquehanna Register and Northern Pennsylvanian 9 [1 May 1834]: 1 [EMD 4:297]). Jacob I. Skinner reported that he “was present at the net fishing excursion when Joe Smith got drunk” and that “the Prophet carried a bottle of whiskey in his pocket” ([Mather], “The Early Mormons. …,” Binghamton Republican, 29 July 1880 [EMD 4:359]).
17. Universalist Elhanan Winchester quotes Isa. 52:9-10 in A Course of Lectures on the Prophecies, 2 vols. (Walpole, NH, 1800), 1:337. In his Lectures on the Prophecies, of the Final Restoration of All Men (Boston, 1811), 27, Winchester quoted similar passages—Isa. 40:5: “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” and Isa. 45:22: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.”
18. See Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, eds., They Knew the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974), 23, 34, 42, 43, 59, 68, 107; Brigham Young, et al., Journal of Discourses of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 26 vols. (Liverpool, Eng.: [Albert Carrington and others], 1853-86), 9:89; Young Woman’s Journal 16 (1905): 556.
22. In subsequent passages, the allusion to Matt. 1:21 is also obscured by the use of “redeem” instead of “save” (Alma 5:21; 5:27; 6:8; Hel. 5:10). But Alma 11:37-38 declares that God “shall not save his people in their sins.”
24. To escape the implied modalism, some have argued that Mosiah 15 assigns separate wills for the Father and Son, that the Son’s will is “swallowed up” in the will of the Father, which is incompatible with modalism (see Blake T. Ostler, “Re-vision-ing the Mormon Concept of Deity,” Element 1.1 [4 Sept. 2001] at www.nd.edu/~rpotter/ostler_element1-1.html). There are indeed two wills described in the passage, but not the wills of separate persons or personalities, at least not in the sense of Joseph Smith’s later teaching in Illinois that the Father and the Son are corporal beings, each with his own spirit and body (e.g., D&C 130:22). Rather, the passage describes the subjection of the will of the flesh (Son) to the will of the spirit (Father). In other words, “the Son of God … having subjected the [will of the] flesh to the will of the [spirit], being the Father and the Son. … the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the [flesh] being swallowed up in the will of the [spirit]” (Mosiah 15:2, 7). This concept is consistent with 2 Nephi 2:29, which comments on “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein,” and 2 Nephi 10:24: “Reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh.”
Ostler also argues that in Mosiah 15 “the Son becomes ‘the Father and the Son’ whereas the Father already is the Father but never the Son.” However, Mosiah 15 does not say that the Son becomes “the Father and the Son.” The Son is already the Son and cannot become the Son. The antecedent is neither Son nor Father, but rather the union of spirit and flesh that becomes Father and Son. The passage clearly states that the Father becomes the Son in that his spirit dwells in the Son. Ostler believes that a modalistic reading of Mosiah 15 can be overturned by showing that Father and Son are not “identical” to one another. This approach incorrectly assumes that modalists believe the Father is—that is, is identical to—the Son, that when the Father becomes flesh, he ceases to exist as spirit. This mischaracterization originates not with modalists but with their opponents such as third-century theologian Tertullian, who accused them of believing that the Father died on the cross (referred to as patripassianism). Modalists did not believe that the Father is the Son but that the Father is in the Son and exists simultaneously as both Father and Son. Therefore, it was the Son who suffered and died, not the Father.
26. Stephen I. Bradstreet, A Sermon on Future Punishment (Cleveland, OH, 1824). Universalists were quick to counter this argument by quoting John 13:33: “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come: so now I say to you.” After citing this passage, a Universalist who reviewed Bradstreet’s work in 1824 argued: “Here Christ tells his chosen disciples that they shall no more be able to follow him than would those Jews to whom he had before made the same declaration. Now, does Mr. B[radstreet] mean to say that he supposes Paul and all the other chosen disciples of Jesus to be now roasting in his imaginary hell, with those Jews to whom Christ spake?” (Samuel Hopkins, An Inquiry concerning the Future State of Those Who Die in Their Sins [Newport, RI, 1783], 32; see also Gospel Advocate [6 Aug. 1824]: 236).
29. George Keith, The Presbyterian and Independent Visible Churches in New-England and Else-Where, Brought to the Test … With a call and warning from the Lord to the people of Boston and New-England to repent. … (London, 1691), 225.
31. Quaker influence in the Book of Mormon is apparent in subsequent chapters which cast Quaker pacifism in a favorable light (Alma 43:11; 53:10-23). More subtly, Quakerism finds expression not only in Abinadi’s repeated admonitions to King Noah and his priests that they “ought to tremble before God” (Mosiah 12:30; 15:26, 27; 16:13), but also in King Benjamin’s confession that “my whole frame doth tremble exceedingly while attempting to speak unto you” (Mosiah 2:30).