The democracy of discipleship and the aristocracy of the saints

It strikes me that one of the sobering dimensions of the gospel is the democracy of its demands as it seeks to build an aristocracy of saints. Certain standards and requirements are laid upon us all. They are uniform. We don’t have an indoor-outdoor set of ten commandments. We don’t have one set of commandments for bricklayers and another for college professors. There is a democracy about the demands of discipleship, which, interestingly enough, is aimed at producing an aristocracy of saints.

– Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Full talk available at the Interpreter

Omni 1

And behold, the record of this people is engraven upon plates which is had by the kings, according to the generations; and I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy; wherefore, that which is sufficient is written. And I make an end.

(Omni 1:11)

While there’s lots that could be drawn from this chapter, I find this verse of particular interest. In just the preceding book (and chapter), Jarom states that:

And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit, which maketh manifest unto the children of men, according to their faith.

(Jarom 1:4)

Jarom himself doesn’t write his own revelations, but for the reason that he feels it is unnecessary in the light of what his predecessors have written. But he asserts that he and many others have had revelations, and goes further to say that all who are not stiffnecked and have faith may have the same privilege.

In this light, Abinadom’s statement that he doesn’t know of anyone who has any revelations is an indication of apostasy. As Mormon declares about miracles or the ministering of angels, “if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain” (Moroni 7:37).

When we think of apostasy and restoration, we tend to think in terms of the Apostasy and the Restoration, but passages like this show it as an ever present cycle throughout the scriptures. Thus in the book of 1 Samuel we read that “the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision” (1 Samuel 3:1). And then the Lord appears to Samuel:

And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground.

And all Israel from Dan even to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord.

And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

(1 Samuel 3:19-21)

Likewise here Abinadom likewise claims there are no revelations and prophecies, and then in the very next verse his son, Amaleki, records how God revealed himself to Mosiah, who led all those who listened to God’s word to safety. Likewise, based on what King Benjamin was commanded to reveal to his people, it appears much of what Nephi and Jacob had taught about Christ had been forgotten by the people, so it had to be revealed again. As if to hammer home the point about the importance of continuing revelation in avoiding apostasy, Amaleki states how he will give his records to King Benjamin for safe-keeping, “exhorting all men to come unto God, the Holy One of Israel, and believe in prophesying, and in revelations” (Omni 1:25, my emphasis).

There is more here than just the general pattern, however. It is not only salvifically important to believe in the existence of prophecy and revelation, but Jarom’s words in Jarom 1:4 suggest the promise of revelation is to everyone: “as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit”. It reminds me of the following comment by Brigham Young:

There is no doubt, if a person lives according to the revelations given to God’s people, he may have the Spirit of the Lord to signify to him his will, and to guide and to direct him in the discharge of his duties, in his temporal as well as his spiritual exercises. I am satisfied, however, that in this respect, we live far beneath our privileges.

(Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 32)

As we believe and follow the revelations God has given to His prophets, we may also experience such revelations ourselves. I’ve had such experiences, and it is a marvellous thing. But I am also sure Brigham Young is right, and that it is easy for us to live beneath our privileges in this regard. And I am sure that at least one key step in being able to receive these privileges is to believe that they are possible, and that we personally can and ought to receive such revelations, and be willing to follow them. Then, if we are not stiffnecked and if we have faith, we too may have communion with the Holy Ghost.

2020 edit:

I think it’s very easy for people to glance over Omni, as the first half is this quick succession of record-keepers adding their own imprint. As I mentioned when discussing Jarom, I think there’s more there than we realise, but we – as with the point in my original post – have to read between the lines a little. When we do, however, an interesting account emerges. Indeed it seems like there were at least two points at which spiritual crises it a peak. The first is just after Omni’s time, his son Amaron recording that “the more wicked part of the Nephites were destroyed” (v. 5), although the righteous had been delivered (v. 7). It’s interesting to ponder whether Omni’s own claim to be “a wicked man, and have not kept the statutes and commandments of the Lord as I ought to have done” (v. 1), is reflective of his people at this point, although that self-consciousness of sin and humility are usually indicative of a degree of penitence.

Likewise, Abinadom’s ignorance of any revelation and prophecy is, I think, an indicator as to where the people are, but the interesting thing is that his son, Amaleki, who records Mosiah being warned through vision and leading the righteous out of the land (ultimately to end up in Zarahemla, vv. 12-13), states that he was “born in the days of Mosiah” (v. 23), which means that Abinadom and Mosiah were contemporaries. Did Abinadom write that before Mosiah’s prophetic “career” started? Did Abinadom listen to Mosiah, or was he one of the apparently many who rejected his message? For that matter, what does happen to the people of Nephi, who up to this point are what we’d consider the main branch of Nephite civilisation? When we next call on the land of Nephi with Zeniff and company, it’s inhabited by Lamanites, but obviously not too densely, since the Lamanite king is happy to order his people to leave the land of Lehi-Nephi as part of his treaty with/scheme against Zeniff (Mosiah 9:6-8, it’s interesting too that the walls of that city need “repair”).

We’re obviously only getting some of the details, and probably would have more if we had Mormon’s account based on the large plates. However, if the record-keepers of the large plates had operated like those of the small plates in this period, we might find the account similarly light on detail. Jarom, of course, mentions space as a concern for keeping his account brief, but of course he also writes far more than Omni onwards do: the very briefness of the accounts may be symbolic of the condition of the people. And yet, despite the fact that some of the record-keepers (like Omni) are self-confessed wicked men, and others are maybe putting less effort in than they should (looking at you Chemish!), God is still able to work through them and use the efforts of imperfect men for his own purposes and to accomplish his own work.

The second part of the book of Omni is just one narrator, which is really the brief account of Mosiah (again abbreviated: we have none of Mosiah’s preaching or prophecies) and into the reign of King Benjamin. I think it’s this half, in which the narrators are not playing pass the parcel, that tends to naturally get more attention form readers, and there are some powerful messages in it. Verse 26 I feel is particularly special:

And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved.

Religion is full of offerings: sacrifices and so on. What the path of the gospel ultimately requires, as this verse so eloquently puts, is that we offering our whole selves to God, that we consecrate ourselves to God. But in doing so, God in return offers us everything.

1 Nephi 2

And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.

1 Nephi 2:7

Lehi had to flee into the wilderness because the people were trying to kill him, he had to leave behind all his property and riches, and we subsequently learn that his family did not believe him (and seem to have been most unconcerned about any death threats). Yet the first thing Lehi does when he reaches a stopping point is to build an altar, make an offering and give thanks to the Lord!

He’s a better man than I am!

2020 Edit:

Several things stood out to me today.

Firstly, there’s Lehi’s dream in verses 1-2. This is the third visionary experience of Lehi’s we have record of (after the two in 1 Nephi 1), although obviously there may be more. This is the one that kicks off the account of the Book of Mormon as we have it, however, since it’s the one that commands Lehi to take his family and flee into the wilderness (more on that in a bit).

One thing that struck me when reading it, however, was how much clearer it was that Lehi’s first two, the first of which we really only have Lehi’s reaction (1 Nephi 1:6), and the second couched very much in apocalyptic terms (in the original, not popular sense). This may be an artefact of how they are recorded, but then that too would be a deliberate choice. I wonder if one implication is that, since Lehi was obedient to what God had commanded him to do earlier (as he is particularly commended for in 1 Nephi 2:1), that further instructions came with increased clarity. In the same way, as we learn to follow the promptings of the spirit and revelation, it becomes easier to hear the spirit and understand what we are to do. That’s one suggestion.

Turning now to the journey into the wilderness. This is a motif, of course, that occurs throughout scripture, especially in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon: Abraham was commanded to leave his home and kindred and promised a land of promise; Jacob fled the home of his father-in-law to return to said land; Moses leads the people of Israel across the wilderness in the exodus; in the Book of Mormon not only do Lehi and his family embark on this trek, but many groups of their descendants will likewise have to flee into the wilderness; and it turns out that long before them the Jaredites had to do the same thing. It is a recurring pattern, one that has also recurred in more recent eras, and may well do so again.

One reason for that, I believe, is the important symbolic meaning attached to these journeys, as both Alma the younger and the author of Hebrews point out. As Alma states, speaking of Lehi’s journey, in Alma 37:45:

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.

And in Hebrews 11:13-16, speaking of the patriarchs:

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.

And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.

But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

These recurrent treks in the wilderness, leaving behind previous comforts and braving the trials of the journey for a new land of promise, are a type of our journey through mortality, seeking the “better country”, the “far better land of promise”, that is our hopefully heavenly destination, one that we too might not always see clearly.

Why did these thoughts pop up while reading this today? Well not just because this is the beginning of Lehi’s journey, but also because of what he did (1 Nephi 2:4):

And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.

This again is a recurrent part of the pattern, but I think a vital one. Such treasures are of course little use on such a journey: facing the trials of a genuine wilderness, the accoutrements of civilisation shed their apparent value. Perhaps that’s one reason why the people of God have to recurrently make such trips literally. But we too, travelling through mortal life, must also learn to leave such things behind: not just material treasures (though often them), but also all the other things that the world would teach us are utterly necessary but which are ultimately transitory: titles, position, careers, awards, degrees and much else. These may be useful for a season, but we cannot take them with us, and we need to be prepared to give them up, lest we end up like Laman and Lemuel whose opposition to their father was rooted in the fact that he had lead them “to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things” (1 Nephi 2:11). We must, as the book of Hebrews states, hold the attitude that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth”, because as C.S. Lewis pointed out in the Screwtape Letters, it is when we feel we are finding our place in the world that it is finding its place in us.

Speaking of the Exodus, one thing to note as we read through 1st Nephi is how closely tied the account is to the Exodus narrative. There’s several deliberate allusions and references, of course (most especially in 1 Nephi 17), but one detail I first noted when I wrote an undergraduate essay on the topic (while in Jerusalem) can be seen in this chapter, which is the detail that Laman and Lemuel “murmur” against their father (v. 11). The word choice is interesting, because one can find that “murmur” and its derivatives (“murmuring” and so on) are used 22 times in the Exodus narrative in the KJV, and only 18 times in the entire rest of the Bible. The same pattern occurs with 1 Nephi, which uses “murmur” and so on 19 times, compared to only 14 times for the entire rest of the Book of Mormon. The word choice is deliberate.

As a final item, it’s also worth noting in verse 20 onward is the first appearance of the oft-quoted promise to Nephi’s descendants in the Book of Mormon: “And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper…”. Of course, it’s always worth bearing in mind that the Lord’s notion of prosperity may not be the same as the world’s and – per C.S. Lewis – worldly prosperity was often highly spiritually dangerous for the Nephites.