Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
Mosiah’s Four Sons as Missionaries
When Mormon digresses from narrating Alma’s experiences on his mission to the Nephites, he includes his abridged record of Mosiah’s sons on a mission to the Lamanites and introduces it as follows: An account of the sons of Mosiah, who rejected their rights to the kingdom for the word of God, and went up to the land of Nephi to preach to the Lamanites; their sufferings and deliverance—according to the record of Alma. Thus, to the nineteenth-century ear, the narrative promised to be something like the adventure stories that were popular in Joseph Smith’s day about life among the Indians and miraculous escapes from Indian bondage.1 The narrative would also inspire four of the earliest Mormon missionaries as they prepared for a long journey from western New York to preach to Native Americans just beyond the Mississippi River.2
The ministry of the four sons of Mosiah spans the same fourteen years of the reign of judges that Mormon covered with Alma’s ministry from about 91 to 77 B.C. (Alma 17-26). The account begins with a chance encounter between Alma and the sons of Mosiah somewhere between the city of Gideon and land of Manti (17:1-4). Alma’s description of these missionaries may reflect Smith’s self-perception:
They had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God. But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God. (17:2-3)
On the occasion of this chance encounter, Alma learns the young men’s plans “to bring, if it were possible, their brethren, the Lamanites, to the knowledge of the truth, to the knowledge of the baseness of the traditions of their fathers, which were not correct” (17:9). Upon arriving in the lands of the Lamanites, the four brothers separate and preach wherever the spirit individually leads them (vv. 13-17). The narrator follows Ammon to the land of Ishmael among the descendants of the patriarch Ishmael who had accompanied Lehi’s family to the New World.
As Ammon enters this land, he is bound and taken before King Lamoni. The assumption is that Ammon will either be killed or deported (17:18-21), but Ammon ingratiates himself to the king to the point that Lamoni offers him his own daughter in marriage. Ammon refuses. This scene has prompted Robert Anderson to suggest that Lamoni represents Isaac Hale and that the offer of his daughter’s hand is a reversal of the humiliation Joseph felt during his and Emma’s elopement.3 Indeed, the setting of Ammon in a distant wilderness far from home suggests the Pennsylvania frontier, and various elements attached to King Lamoni—his power over Ammon, the offer of marriage, and his location in the land of Ishmael, which recalls the image of Nephi’s father-in-law as previously described4—suggest Isaac Hale. However, other elements, especially the dynamics between the king, queen, and Ammon seem more reflective of Smith’s own family. Lamoni is likely a composite of Isaac Hale and Joseph Smith Sr.
Rather than attach himself to royalty and the privilege that would accrue through marriage, Ammon offers to be the king’s servant. Three days later while Ammon is attending the king’s flocks at the local watering hole, a group of ruffians scatter the sheep. While Ammon’s fellow servants fear execution for their incompetence, Ammon is happy to stand forth and demonstrate his swordsmanship and ability with a sling and kills several of the bandits. As others approach him with clubs, Ammon cuts off their raised arms. Finally, the ruffians disengage and flee before the hero (17:25-38).
Given the story’s many implausible elements, one wonders if it is based on adolescent games and fantasies and in part on the persecution Joseph experienced in Harmony, perhaps involving Isaac Hale’s property in Smith’s care. William Morain’s interpretation is that the story reflects Smith’s early anxiety about dismemberment, “a wish fulfilling reenactment of [Smith’s] childhood operations but with the roles reversed,” which is also intriguing.5
When the bodies and limbs are brought to King Lamoni as a testimony of what Ammon has done, an astonished Lamoni declares: “Surely, this is more than a man. Behold, is not this the Great Spirit who doth send such great punishments upon this people, because of their murders? … Now this was the tradition of Lamoni, which he had received from his father, that there was a Great Spirit” (18:2, 5). This reference to contemporary Native American belief in “the Great Spirit” is transparent.6
In questioning Ammon, the king is impressed with Ammon’s apparent ability to perceive his thoughts and exclaims: “Who art thou? Art thou that Great Spirit, who knows all things?” (18:18). The narrator informs us that Ammon has had plenty of opportunity to perceive the king’s thoughts. One of the servants has said to Ammon, “Rabbanah, which is, being interpreted, powerful or great king, … the king desireth thee to stay” (v. 13), and Ammon has noticed that “the countenance of the king was changed” (v. 12).
The king sits in silence for more than an hour until Ammon—“being filled with the Spirit of God, therefore he perceived the thoughts of the king”—asks: “Is it because thou hast heard that I defended thy servants and thy flocks … that causeth thy marvelings?” (18:16) One is reminded that less than a month prior to dictating this portion of the Book of Mormon, Joseph had convinced Oliver Cowdery that he knew his “secret thoughts.”8
Ammon denies being the Great Spirit (18:18),1 just as Joseph would deny his followers’ assumption that he was “the Shepherd,”9 but Lamoni presses Ammon to explain how he can discern the thoughts of others and by what power he killed the bandits promising that “whatsoever thou desirest of me I will grant it unto thee” (v. 21). This creates an opportunity for Ammon to preach to the king. “Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni: Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things?” (v. 22). It could be said that Ammon was crafty, yet harmless, because after Lamoni says “Yea, I will believe all thy words” (v. 23), Mormon adds: “And thus he was caught with guile” (meaning cunning, trickery, or shrewdness) because Ammon tricked the king into believing something before hearing it. One can see a similar scenario in play where Joseph has asked his family to believe in the Book of Mormon before he has dictated it. Joseph Sr., for instance, would not have known that the book would contain an anti-Universalist message.10
Ammon asks the king: “Believest thou that there is a God?” (18:24). “I do not know what that meaneth” (v. 25), Lamoni answers. Ammon responds: “Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?” (v. 26). When the king answers yes, Ammon declares: “This is God” (v. 28). Ammon adapts his message to find common ground as Joseph learned to do with his father when he couched his message within the symbols and language of the treasure culture.
Continuing his questioning, Ammon asks: “Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?” (18:28). When Lamoni states that he believes in the creation of the earth but does not know about the heavens (18:29), Ammon responds: “The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels” (v. 30). Here Ammon moves from the created heavens—the cosmos—to the metaphysical heaven of God’s residence. To a limited extent, Smith may have been a natural theologian along the lines of Thomas Dick, who transformed a metaphysical heaven into a literal place located somewhere in the universe.11 For Smith, God is not spirit but is a spirit, specifically the pre-mortal spirit of Jesus (cf. Ether 3:6-16), which makes it possible for him to dwell in a heaven.
Lamoni asks: “Is [heaven] above the earth?” (18:31). “Yea,” Ammon responds, “and [God] looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning” (v. 32). Lamoni declares his belief in Ammon’s words, then asks: “Art thou sent from God?” (v. 33). “I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people” (v. 34), Ammon explains. He then rehearses the story of Lehi, emphasizing the rebellion of Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael. Finally, Ammon “expounded unto them the plan of redemption, which was prepared from the foundation of the world; and he also made known unto them concerning the coming of Christ.” (v. 39).
At the conclusion of Ammon’s preaching, Lamoni is dramatically converted. Crying out for God’s mercy, the Lamanite king falls to the ground as if dead (18:40-43), and after two days, the queen calls Ammon before her to know if the king is dead or in a trance of some kind. Ammon, Mormon interjects, knows that the king is “under the power of God … that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was [the] marvelous light of his goodness—yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and … the light of everlasting life was lit up in his soul, yea, he [Ammon] knew that this had overcome his [Lamoni’s] natural frame, and he was carried away of God” (19:6). This is a description of the same falling down and fainting that occurred at revivals in Smith’s day. Ammon responds that the king “sleepeth in God” and will rise the next day (v. 8).
When Ammon asks the queen if she believes what he said, she answers: “I have had no witness save thy word, and the word of our servants; nevertheless I believe that it shall be according as thou hast said” (19:9). This borrows from the New Testament when Jesus blesses those who believe in his resurrection without having seen him (John 20:29). Of course, this was also true for those who accepted the existence of the gold plates.
Delighted with the queen’s statement of belief, Ammon declares: “Blessed art thou because of thy exceeding faith; I say unto thee, woman, there has not been such great faith among all the people of the Nephites” (19:10)—an adaptation of Jesus’ statement to the Roman centurion, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matt. 8:10). Perhaps Joseph thought of his mother, Lucy, as he dictated this exchange between Ammon and the queen.
The next day, the king rises and declares to the queen: “Blessed be the name of God, and blessed art thou. For as sure as thou livest, behold, I have seen my Redeemer; and he shall come forth and be born of a woman, and he shall redeem all mankind who believe on his name” (19:12-13). While not a direct borrowing, Lamoni echoes Job’s declaration—“I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” (Job 19:25). In addition to fits and faintings, revivalists sometimes experienced “transports” to the heavenly realm. Boston Congregationalist minister Charles Chauncy, a critic of the emotionalism often displayed at revivals during the 1740s, described the effect of Methodist George Whitefield’s preaching: “They cried out, fell down, swooned away, and to all appearance, were like persons in fits. … Visions now became common, and trances also, the subjects of which were in their own conceit transported from earth to heaven, where they saw and heard most glorious things; conversed with Christ and holy angels.”12
The king “sunk again with joy” and the queen also “sunk down, being overpowered by the Spirit” (19:13). Ammon sees this and is filled with joy, then he too “sunk to the earth” (v. 14). The scene that ensued surpassed anything Joseph would have seen at a revival, for the king’s servants were instantly converted and fell to the earth (vv. 15-16). This part of the story shows Joseph’s desire to see himself united in God’s spirit with his father, mother, siblings, and acquaintances.
The remarkable scene attracts a crowd to the king’s palace. Recognizing Ammon as his brother’s assassin at the king’s watering hole, one man raises his sword to kill the defenseless Nephite lying on the ground. To the crowd’s astonishment, the man is instantly struck dead (19:21-23). This protection from an avenging brother perhaps reflects the fear Joseph once harbored concerning his own siblings following Alvin’s death. Joseph Sr. later explained Alvin’s death as an “accidental providence,”13 but in the folk-magic context of 1823-24 it was perhaps viewed as a bad omen. This may have been, in part, why the Smith family no longer wanted to listen to Joseph’s stories about ancient Indians. Following his failure to get the gold plates in 1824 and the explanation that Alvin’s presence was required, speculation that the treasure guardian had tricked Joseph by killing Alvin may have found angry expression. In the aftermath of a sudden death, many families experience guilt, anger, second-guessing, and irrational blame. The Smiths were probably not any different.
At this point, a new character is introduced, a “Lamanitish woman, whose name was Abish” (19:16). Abish is the only woman other than Lehi’s wife, Sariah, and the harlot Isabel (Alma 39:3) to be identified by name. Even the queen is nameless. Abish has been secretly “converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father” (v. 16). It is unclear if Abish was converted by her father’s vision or by a vision in which her father appeared. Regardless, it is tempting to conjecture, given the special status of this character and her equally unusual conversion experience, that Joseph had his mother in mind as he dictated this portion of the Book of Mormon. Lucy’s father, Solomon Mack, died in 1820. Although Lucy did not join the Presbyterian church until 1824-25, she traced the origin of her intense interest in religion to 1820 and perhaps as the result of a dream that comforted her.14 At the very least, she was greatly affected by Solomon’s 1810 vision and his conversion to orthodox Christianity.15
When Abish touches the hand of the queen, the queen immediately declares: “O blessed Jesus, who has saved me from an awful hell! O blessed God, have mercy on this people!” (19:29). After clasping her hands together in joy and speaking “many words which were not understood” (v. 30), probably in tongues, the queen takes the king by the hand. The king rises to his feet and calls the people to repentance.
Three important elements in this conversion story stand out as possible reflections of Smith’s family situation. First, a person may be led to true, charismatic conversion by a missionary’s “guile.” Second, note the dynamic between the king and queen with possible reference to Smith’s parents: the king is converted first by trickery, then by charismatic experience; the queen, on the other hand, is converted by faith alone—her charismatic experience stems from her joy in her husband’s conversion. Third, the queen is raised by Abish, who as I have suggested could also represent Lucy. If so, it would be another instance of splitting as in the different aspects of Joseph Sr. represented by Lehi and Laban. In this instance, Abish may represent Lucy before her conversion to Mormonism, while the queen represents Joseph’s hopes for his mother’s positive response to his message.
Following Lamoni’s return to consciousness, Ammon and the king’s other servants awake, testifying that “they had seen angels and had conversed with them” (19:34). As a result, there are many conversions and baptisms among Lamoni’s people and the church is firmly established in the city of Ishmael (v. 35).
When Lamoni asks Ammon to journey with him to the land of Nephi to meet his father, the king of all the Lamanites, Ammon receives a revelation warning against this. Instead, Ammon is to go to the land of Middoni16 where his brothers are imprisoned. Being a friend of the king in Middoni, Lamoni insists on accompanying Ammon. Lamoni instructs his servants to prepare “his horses and his chariots” and he and Ammon are soon on their way (20:1-7).
Before reaching Middoni, the two find that they cannot avoid Lamoni’s father who encounters them on the road and is displeased to find his son with a Nephite. The king asks his son why he was not in attendance at “the feast on that great day when I made a feast unto my sons, and unto my people?” and why he is in the presence of “this Nephite, who is one of the children of a liar?” (20:9, 10). The liar referred to is Nephi, who “robbed our fathers” of the brass plates and their inheritances (v. 13). “And now [Nephi’s] children are also amongst us,” he explains to his son, “that they may, by their cunning and their lyings, deceive us, that they again may rob us of our property” (v. 13). In this regard, it is interesting that Smith has been accused by his former money-digging friends of stealing the gold plates. Also, Lucy Harris accused Smith of robbing her husband of money and property.
When the father commands his son to kill Ammon, Lamoni refuses, declaring his belief that Ammon and his brothers are “holy prophets of the true God” (20:15). The father draws his sword and tries to kill his own son, but Ammon intercedes and wounds Lamoni’s father on the arm. Certain that Ammon could kill him, the king pleads for his life, promising to give Ammon half his kingdom (v. 23). Ammon rejects this, desiring only that Lamoni retain his own kingdom and that Ammon’s brothers be set free. This benevolence astonishes the king, who not only grants the wish but invites Ammon to preach in the land of Nephi (vv. 24-27).
While this story is implausible because it has two kings traveling between cities unaccompanied by guards, the father-son dynamic is worth consideration. Note that the father’s anger toward his son results from the son’s disregard for family tradition. In the Smith family, Joseph Jr.’s encounter with Methodism may have met with the same response his parents received from Joseph Sr.’s father, Asael, for attending Methodist meetings a decade earlier. In a sense, Joseph’s abandonment of Methodism acquiesced to Smith family tradition, to Asael’s and Joseph Sr.’s rational theology. Now that he has taken on the prophetic mantle—represented here by Ammon, one of God’s “just men and holy prophets” (v. 15)—Joseph is able to stand up to his father. Such apprehension is likely the reason Joseph chose to confront his father indirectly through his book. In addition, when Ammon wounds but does not kill Lamoni’s father, he expresses concern for the king’s soul—“If thou shouldst fall at this time, in thine anger, thy soul could not be saved” (v. 17). In the language of emotion, Joseph does not want to remove his father as patriarch but rather to free his brothers from the prison of the present family system and to receive permission from his father to reign autonomously in his own kingdom.
At this point, Mormon turns to the story of Aaron’s ministry among the Amalekites and Amulonites in the Lamanite city of Jerusalem and the circumstances that led to his imprisonment in Middoni (Alma 21-26). The Amalekites and Amulonites are said to be apostate Nephites living among the Lamanites very near where Alma established the Church of God in the wilderness (21:1-3). These Nephites are even more hard-hearted than the Lamanites for they are Universalist in outlook (vv. 3-4).
While preaching in what is called the synagogue, Aaron is interrupted by an Amalekite Universalist who asks: “How knowest thou that we have cause to repent?” Mormon editorializes that both “the Amalekites and the Amulonites were after the order of the Nehors” (21:4). Like most Universalists in Smith’s day, Aaron’s audience not only believes that “God will save all men” but also reject the idea that Jesus would atone for the sins of the world (vv. 6-10).
Departing Jerusalem, Aaron joins Muloki and Ammah in the village of Ani-Anti, where they also had been preaching without success (21:11). The three brothers then proceed to Middoni, where they are imprisoned until the arrival of Ammon and Lamoni (vv. 12-14).
After freeing his brethren, Ammon returns to Ishmael with Lamoni and begins to build up the church there (21:18-23). Aaron and his brothers resume preaching, eventually making their way to the city of Nephi, which is controlled by Lamoni’s father (v. 1). Aaron’s conversation with Lamoni’s father echoes Ammon’s with Lamoni (cf. 18:24-43). When this king, too, is “struck as if he were dead” (22:18), the queen in this case assumes that Aaron and his brothers are assassins and orders them killed (v. 19). But Aaron commands the king to “stand” (v. 22), upon which the king stands and begins preaching to the queen until his “whole household were converted unto the Lord” (v. 23).
If the difference in the reactions of the two queens indicates a split in the portrayal of Joseph’s mother, Lucy, as opposed to the identical reaction of the two kings, it may hint at an initial negative reaction to the story of the gold plates and encounters with a guardian spirit that drew Joseph Sr. farther away from orthodox religion. After Lucy’s conversion to Presbyterianism, her son’s alliance with her husband continued to keep Joseph Sr. from attending church. Joseph Jr. must have felt emotionally cut off from his mother during this period. It was as though he had driven a wedge between his father and mother.
In the Book of Mormon story, the king sends out a proclamation that none should harm or imprison the four Nephite missionaries (22:27; 23:1-3). At this point, Mormon digresses to describe in detail the contours of Lamanite and Nephite lands (22:27-34). Until now, the geographic information has been limited to the most vague descriptions of how a few cities relate to a major river and its outlet to the sea. Even Smith’s replacement text—the “small” plates of Nephi—will offer little about geography. But here, Mormon tells readers where Lehi landed in the New World, which direction Nephi traveled to found the city of Nephi, and where Zarahemla is located in relation to Nephi.17
There are first some general bearings in Alma 22:27-34 regarding a “land southward” and a “land northward” joined by a “small neck of land.” This has traditionally been interpreted as South America, North America, and the Isthmus of Panama. For the first time, one learns that for nearly 500 years of Nephite/Lamanite history, the story has been occurring in “the land southward” or South America.18 In this southern continent, the Nephites are divided from the Lamanites by “a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west” (v. 27). South of the strip of wilderness is the land of Nephi, including the place of first inheritance, or Lehi’s landing, now under the control of the Lamanites; whereas the Nephite land of Zarahemla lies to the north. The Lamanites occupy the wilderness along the seashore to the east and west of Zarahemla, “thus the Nephites [much like the early American colonists] were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites” (v. 29).
The Nephites control the most northern section of the land southward, called Bountiful, which borders the small neck of land, or Panama. The Jaredites, we are told, were in the land northward, and Bountiful itself “bordered upon the land which they called Desolation, it being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken” (22:30).
Alma 22:32 describes the size and orientation of the small neck of land: “And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla [which together constitute the whole land southward] were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward” (emphasis added). In context, then, this passage explains that the “land southward” is entirely surrounded by water except for a “small neck of land” which takes a Nephite a day and a half to traverse; it is in this sense that the land southward is said to be “nearly surrounded by water.” This fits well with South America and Panama.19
The Isthmus of Panama accommodates the Book of Mormon’s description since, where it connects to South America, the seas are on the east and west. Early traveler Lionel Wafer, describing the southern region of Panama, drew such a “line” as Alma 22:32 suggests, stating: “I should draw a Line also from … the South part of the Gulf of St. Michael, directly East, to the nearest part of the great River Darien.”20 The River of Darien mentioned by Wafer is today’s Gulfo de Uraba situated on the east side of the isthmus, which allows one to draw a straight line east to west across the isthmus at precisely the location described by Mormon.
A subsequent passage, Alma 50:34, refers to the same area on the isthmus—that is, the point at which it connects with “the land southward”—and gives the geographic orientation of the seas. Attempting to prevent the Lamanites from reaching the land northward, Moroni’s army will meet them “by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east.” In his 1793 American Universal Geography, Jedidiah Morse emphasized the close proximity of the two seas at this point on the isthmus: “[It is] not more than 70 miles across … [and] the country about the narrowest parts of the Isthmus is made up of low, sickly valleys, and mountains of such stupendous height, as to incline one to imagine that nature had raised them to serve as an eternal barrier between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which here approach so near each other, that from these mountains you can plainly discern the waters of both at the same time, and seemingly at a very small distance,”21 Although some have suggested a number of alternative geographies which reduce the size of Nephite lands, none fulfills the orientation requirements for the Book of Mormon’s isthmus without serious manipulation of text and terrain.22
Joseph may have been vague about the book’s geography until after he concluded to have the resurrected Jesus visit America (Alma 7:8; 16:20).23 The book no longer centered on God’s dealings with a family that had migrated to America but was a history of the Western Hemisphere. Anticipating Jesus’ visit to the New World, the Book of Mormon begins to take on a monumental quality with a geography to match. However, this sudden introduction of hemispheric geography, while consistent with the mound-builder myth, created problems of distance. Mormon’s account of the Limhi expedition from the city of Nephi, now located in the “land southward,” to the site of the Jaredite destruction somewhere in the “land northward” contains unrealistic distances considering that the group was looking for the nearby city of Zarahemla, especially if Smith equated the “land among many waters” with the Great Lakes region (see Mosiah 8:8-11; 21:25-26).
Under the king’s protection, the sons of Mosiah travel from city to city establishing the church, converting entire cities of Lamanites even where there had been resistance previously (Alma 23:4-13). The “curse” is lifted from these Lamanite converts, who renounce their heritage, vow never to kill, and call themselves the Anti-Nephi-Lehies24 (vv. 16-18). Soon the Amalekites and Amulonites, apostate Nephite Universalists living in Lamanite territory, stir up unconverted Lamanites against the Anti-Nephi-Lehies who were strict pacifists, much like early Quakers, believing that killing even in self-defense was a sin (24:16, 19). When the Lamanite army attacks them, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies offer no resistance but kneel and begin to pray. After more than a thousand Anti-Nephi-Lehies are slaughtered, an equal number of Lamanites are moved to conversion.
The primary purpose of this story was not to promote pacifism among Smith’s followers, for in subsequent chapters pacifism is portrayed as a danger to liberty, freedom, and theocratic government (Alma 46:35; 51:15). Anti-Nephi-Lehies are pacifists in testament of the fact that they have renounced their warrior life (24:7-16). The story is less about pacifism than about committing to obey God’s commandments at all cost.
Mormon informs readers that none of the converted were Amalekites or Amulonites, then editorializes: “And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things” (24:30). This would be a commentary on backsliding in Jacksonian America, reflecting the frustration the young Joseph felt in dealing with his father in particular and society in general.
Following the near extermination of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, Ammon and his brothers enjoy another period of success among the Lamanites (25:13-17). Overjoyed, Ammon glories in the “great work” which he and his fellow missionaries have accomplished (26:1-9). Aaron chides him: “Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting” (26:10). This was a weakness that Joseph Jr. had. Levi Lewis of Harmony said “he heard Smith say he (Smith) was as good as Jesus Christ;—that it was as bad to injure him as it was to injure Jesus Christ.”25 His wife, Sophia Lewis, said she “heard a conversation between Joseph Smith Jr., and the Rev. James B. Roach, in which Smith called Mr. R[oach]. a d—d fool. Smith also said in the same conversation that he (Smith) was as good as Jesus Christ.”26 Hezekiah McKune, also of Harmony, said that “in conversation with Joseph Smith Jr., he (Smith) said he was nearly equal to Jesus Christ; that he was a prophet sent by God to bring in the Jews, and that he was the greatest prophet that had ever arisen.”27 While one cannot know how much hyperbole has been added to these quotes or what was intended—what could have elicited such statements, for instance—the observers were alarmed at what they perceived to be the disparity between Joseph’s claim of piety and his boasting of it and other behavior that was out of keeping with a religious life including lying, drinking, and the use of “profanity,” according to their statements.28
In Ammon’s lengthy defense of his boasting, there may be an apology on Smith’s part for his critics in Harmony. “I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom,” Ammon declares. “But behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God” (26:11). Upon further reflection, maybe Joseph’s enthusiasm had been excessive. “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things. … Now if this is boasting, even so will I boast” (vv. 12, 36). In all likelihood, the situation was similar to when Joseph, as a spirit-filled charismatic, would later declare that he and others could become joint heirs with Jesus in the kingdom of God (Rom. 8:14-18; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 76:95; 88:107) and that human beings could reach a state of sanctification or moral perfection (Hel. 3:35; 3 Ne. 27:20; 28:39; Ether 4:7; Moro. 10:33).29 Through faith in Jesus, Smith believed, he had become perfected and thereby, in a sense, equal to Jesus. Despite the theological underpinning, this was not a solely intellectual proposition but also an intensely emotional one, as Ammon’s story suggests. Ammon freely expresses his feelings of joy and euphoria, which in another vocabulary would be called mania. In support of the Harmony residents’ early reports, several interpreters have noted that mania and grandiosity were trademarks of Smith’s personality throughout his life.30
After God warns Ammon that a Lamanite army is approaching, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies flee to the safety of Nephite territory and eventually settle in the land of Jershon, located immediately south of the land Bountiful near the small neck of land on the east side by the sea (27:1-24). Thereafter the Lamanite converts are known as “the people of Ammon” (v. 26). Mormon editorializes that these converts “never could be prevailed upon to take up arms against their brethren.” This is subsequently contradicted in Alma 53:13-14 when Helaman has to insist that they keep their promise.
The Lamanites pursue the Anti-Nephi-Lehies into the wilderness but are finally driven back by Nephite armies in a tremendous battle—“even such an one as never had been known among all the people in the land from the time Lehi left Jerusalem”—in which “tens of thousands” of Lamanites are killed (28:2).
It is here that Mormon concludes his account of the misadventures of Ammon and his brothers among the Lamanites. The story ends in the fifteenth year of the reign of the judges (76 B.C.) with a narrow escape, a mass migration of converts, and the slaughter of thousands of Lamanites—and then a soliloquy by Alma on the importance of missionary work. Lamenting the mass destruction of the Lamanites whose bodies lie “moldering in heaps upon the face of the earth” (28:11), Alma worries about their eternal welfare. In the same way, Joseph Smith believed that the United States would soon experience a similar purging31 and that Alma’s words would carry a particular importance to like-minded contemporaries.
Waxing poetic when expressing his desire to preach repentance and save all humanity, Alma says: “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!” (29:1). Joseph Smith’s religious strivings, like Alma’s, were intense and expansive. Alma continues: “Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth” (v. 2). Alma, like Ammon, must curb his hubris: “I do not glory of myself, but I glory in that which the Lord hath commanded me; yea, and this is my glory, that perhaps I may be an instrument in the hands of God to bring some soul to repentance; and this is my joy” (v. 9). The quick repetition of this theme, which readers would not otherwise think to ascribe to Alma, shows that the author is defensive regarding the charge of pride and arrogance.
1. See, e.g., Josiah Priest, The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed (Albany, NY: Josiah Priest, 1825), 137-50. Facsimile reproductions of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century Indian captivity narratives are located in Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captivities, 111 vols. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977). See also Richard VanDerBeets, The Indian Captivity Narrative: An American Genre (Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1984); and Richard VanDerBeets, Held Captive by Indians: Selected Narratives, 1642-1836 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973).
5. William D. Morain, The Sword of Laban: Joseph Smith, Jr. and the Dissociated Mind (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1998), 116-18. Note the similarity between the ensuing exchange between Ammon and Lamoni and the previous story of another Ammon and King Limhi in Mosiah 8 (see chapter 10 in this volume). Both stories take place in Lamanite territory and relate to Smith’s seeric gift.
8. This passage parallels the statement of the first Ammon about seers in Mosiah 8:16-17: “A gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can. But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed” (emphasis added).
9. Speaking perhaps of the Kirtland, Ohio, period, Brigham Young recalled in 1853: “When Martin [Harris] was with Joseph Smith, he was continually trying to make the people believe that he (Joseph) was the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel. I have heard Joseph chastise him severely for it, and he told me that such a course, if persisted in, would destroy the kingdom of God” (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], 2:127).
10. Concerning Ammon’s use of deception, Robert Anderson writes: “Ammon’s story reveals coercion and manipulation, characteristics of the narcissistic personality. … From a psychological perspective, the fact that Smith, speaking through an alter ego, finds deceit and manipulation ‘harmless’ is one of the most troubling admissions of the Book of Mormon. … Ammon does not appreciate—or care—that individuals coerced by intimidation and threats do not respond with genuine gratitude. As a psychiatrist, I would fear that, if these techniques are working for Smith in early adulthood, he will continue to use them” (Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith, 151).
11. On Thomas Dick, who believed “the systems of the Universe revolve around a common centre … the throne of God,” see his Philosophy of a Future State (New York: G. C. & G. Carvill, 1829); and The Christian Philosopher, 1st Amer. ed. (New York: G. & C. Carvill, 1826). On the possible influence of Dick’s philosophy on Joseph Smith, see Edward T. Jones, “The Theology of Thomas Dick and Its Possible Relationship to that of Joseph Smith,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1969; Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 171-72; and Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
12. Charles Chauncy, “A Letter from a Gentleman in Boston to Mr. George Wishart … of Edinburgh …,” in The Great Awakening: Documents on the Revival of Religion, 1740-1745, ed. Richard L. Bushman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 118-19. See also Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).
13. Willard Chase, affidavit, ca. 11 Dec. 1833, in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 243 (cf. Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003], 2:67; hereafter EMD).
14. Lucy Smith, “Preliminary Manuscript,” 24, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, UT (EMD 1:242). It has been reported that “auditory and visual hallucinations are a commonly documented part of the grief reaction, with as many as 70% of recently bereaved people experiencing either illusions or hallucinations of the deceased” (Richard P. Bentall, “Hallucinatory Experiences,” in Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence [Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2000], 99).
15. Robert Anderson sees Abish as representing Emma (Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith, 149, 152). He notes that “in a fairy tale, [Abish] would be the king’s daughter and Ammon’s future wife,” but he wonders why the story remains incomplete. Why does Ammon refuse the daughter’s hand? After all, Smith did marry Emma. Moreover, the circumstances of Abish’s conversion do not fit Emma’s situation.
16. Note the rhyme play between the words Lamoni and Middoni as well as the possible association of Middoni with the word “middle,” perhaps representing the city’s location between Ishmael and Nephi. This compliments Ammon’s mediation in the ensuing story.
17. The only specific geographic reference in the replacement text is Omni 1:22, which mentions that the Jaredite bones “lay scattered in the land northward” (1:22). However, that there was a “land northward” in relationship to a “land southward” is not mentioned until Alma 22. Note also that in Mosiah nothing is said about the location of the Jaredite destruction in relationship to Zarahemla, only that it was “in a land among many waters” (Mosiah 8:8).
18. Despite apologetic denial, Joseph Smith said that “Lehi and his company … landed on the continent of South America, in Chili, thirty degrees south latitude” (Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel, 2nd rev. ed.; [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1882], 289). This belief can be traced to the earliest teachings of the Mormon missionaries. On 18 November 1830, Ohio’s Observer and Telegraph reported Oliver Cowdery’s public pronouncement that Lehi’s party “landed on the coast of Chili 600 years before the coming of Christ, and from them descended all the Indians of America” (“The Golden Bible,” Observer and Telegraph 1 [18 Nov. 1830]: 1).
19. Those postulating a limited geography situated around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Central America have difficulty with this passage since this region, excluding the isthmus, is not surrounded by water. One of the new theorists, John L. Sorenson, ignores the southern sea (Hel. 3:8) and attempts to escape Alma 22:32 by emphasizing the phrase “nearly surrounded by water” without examining its full context (see John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1985], 6). Neither are the seas on the east and west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, requiring a shift of 45 degrees off true north for the Nephites’ directional system. See Earl M. Wunderli, “Critique of a Limited Geography for Book of Mormon Events,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35 (Fall 2002): 161-97.
22. Attempts to limit the events in the Book of Mormon to Central America are inconsistent with early church tradition, the text of the Book of Mormon, and Mesoamerican archaeology. See, for example, Deanne G. Matheny, “Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” in Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 269-328; and Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), vii-xiii.
24. The name Nephi-Lehi had become associated with the capital city of the Lamanites, where Limhi’s people had been kept in bondage. Adopting the name Anti-Nephi-Lehi therefore symbolized their revolt against Lamanite tradition; they were more accurately anti-Lamanites. Mormon emphasizes that the converts had become peaceful, industrious, and friendly towards the Nephites and that “the curse of God did no more follow them” (Alma 23:13, 18).
28. Levi Lewis mentioned Joseph’s occasional drunkenness during the period that he was dictating the Book of Mormon. In 1834 Martin Harris corroborated this, then changed his statement under threat of church discipline to: “Joseph drank too much liquor … previous to the translating of the Book [of Mormon]” (“Kirtland Council Minute Book,” 28-29, entry of 12 Feb. 1834, LDS Church Archives [EMD 2:282-83]). The Hales and Lewises were Methodists and probably followed their church’s recommendation that people abstain from alcohol, contrasted with the temperance advocated by other groups at the time. In 1816, for example, the Methodist General Conference moved that “no station or local preacher shall [use] spirituous or malt Liquor without forfeiting his ministerial character among us” (see Keith Melder, Beginnings of Sisterhood: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1800-1850 [New York: Schocken Books, 1977], 49-61).
29. Note particularly the link between “joy” and sanctification in Hel. 3:35, which calls to mind Ammon’s defense that he had been filled with “joy.” Note also the equation between “sanctified in Christ” and “perfect in Christ” in Moroni 10:33.
30. C. Jess Groesbeck and Larry Foster associate Smith’s mania with bipolar affective disorder or manic-depressive illness (see Lawrence Foster, “The Psychology of Religious Genius: Joseph Smith and the Origins of New Religious Movements,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 [Winter 1993]: 1-22), whereas Robert D. Anderson believes it to be symptomatic of a narcissistic personality disorder (Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith). See also Gary James Bergera, “Joseph Smith and the Hazards of Charismatic Leadership,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 6 (1986): 33-42.