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- 1 Summary
- 2 Historical setting
- 3 Discussion
- 4 Complete outline and page map
- 5 Unanswered questions
- 6 Prompts for life application
- 7 Prompts for further study
- 8 Resources
- 9 Notes
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Relationship to Book of Mormon. Mosiah relates the history of the Nephites from about 130 BC to 91 BC under the reigns of Benjamin and his son Mosiah II. Mosiah follows the period of about 300 years since Jacob during which we know very little about the Nephites. Mosiah begins the history of the "classical Nephite period" that continues in great detail through Alma, Helaman, and Third Nephi. The relationship of Mosiah to the Book of Mormon as a whole is discussed at more length at Book of Mormon: Unities.
Story. Mosiah consists of five major sections:
- Chapters 1-6: King Benjamin. King Benjamin's speech, conversion of people, names written, transfer of kingship.
- Chapters 7-10: King Zeniff. Zeniff leads two groups to occupy land of Nephi, pride.
- Chapters 11-19: King Noah and Abinadi. Abinadi preaches to Noah, Alma converted.
- Chapters 20-24: King Limhi and Alma. Alma and Limhi lead two groups escaping land of Nephi, humility.
- Chapters 25-29: King Mosiah II. Church organized and names written, Alma Younger converted, transfer of power to judges.
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Mosiah include:
- Christ is the only name by which people can be saved. There is no other name.
- One problem with monarchy (or unaccountable government) is that it can abuse those to whom it is not accountable.
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- See here for a chronology of Mosiah and Alma (taken from James E. Faulconer's Sunday School lesson; credit for the first part of the chronology is given to Arthur Bassett).
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Kingship: thesis and antithesis
Though Mormon seems to have been following the plates of Nephi in his division of the Book of Mormon into books, there is reason to believe that he also found ways to structure each book so that each embodies on a rather grand scale some rather poignant themes. The Book of Mosiah is perhaps the easiest in which such grand themes can be read. The book, as a whole, is structured as a giant parallelism that resolves itself by cancelling the separation implied in the parallelism. Some detail is in order.
The small plates report (and one can only imagine that Mormon's parallel text in the missing manuscript reported it as well) that Benjamin's reign was marked, before his great speech, by a rather odd split in his kingdom. A group of people, under the direction of Zeniff, decided to move to the South in an attempt to reclaim the original lands occupied by Nephi after he fled from his brothers. Though this departure is only noted in few words, it must be recognized that it was likely a major political event: to reclaim former territory in the name of the Nephite kings is certainly a daring undertaking, and to establish a kingship there, one parallel to Benjamin's own power, could only have been understood as a relativization of Benjamin's power. In other words, that Zeniff felt to establish a kingship in a more originary sense than Benjamin's monarchy suggests that the movement to reclaim the land of Nephi was fueled in part by a sort of mild defiance, a rejection, to some degree, of Benjamin's place. There does not seem to have been a great deal of concern on Benjamin's part about all of this, and there seem to have been amicable relations between the two groups (Mosiah II sends out parties to search for them, etc.), and so whatever "defiance" is implied in the action was certainly quite mild. But it should be recognized that there were inevitable implications and overtones bound up within Zeniff's zeal to obtain the land of Nephi.
What all of this seems to suggest is that the Book of Mosiah opens on the note of a major political split. When the book opens, the split is already complete, and the majority of the book deals with the parallel kingdoms this split creates. The first part of the book (Mosiah 1-6) deals with things in the land of Zarahemla; the second part (Mosiah 7-24) deals with things in the land of Nephi. The last part of the book (Mosiah 25-29) works out the collapse of the split, the collapse of the parallel kingdoms, and the reconciliation of two rival worldviews. In other words, the Book of Mosiah reads almost like a Hegelian syllogism:
This broad structure in the book suggests the incredibly political theme of the Book of Mosiah ("political" understood in the sense it was used among, say, the Greeks--not in the debates and power struggles of today). The book reads into a series of parallel kings (and the prophet Abinadi, as a parallel to Benjamin in a powerful way) in order to think the institution of kingship and to think its relation to salvation. The radically separatist voice of Abinadi ultimately calls for a sort of rebellion under the radically separatist authority of Alma. When Limhi returns to Zarahemla ready to give up the institution of kingship, and when Alma returns to Zarahemla quite convinced that the kingdom of God should be understood as superceding any earthly kingship, the ideals Benjamin had taught in such incredible power have quite clearly been compromised by the parallel history. Mosiah II is forced to make a decision that results in the institution of the judges. The whole book, it seems, sets Mosiah II's grand speech in Mosiah 29, then, against Benjamin's grand speech in Mosiah 2-5. These two speeches are set in parallel, and the great irony is that the first speech (Benjamin's) is specifically the speech given as Mosiah II was enthroned. The book really is the Book of Mosiah, since it centers on the events (almost all of which happen outside the boundaries of his kingdom) that lead Mosiah from a most glorious equation of the Nephite kingdom with the kingdom of God, to a radical rejection of the very concept of kingdom.
In the end, the Book of Mosiah must be read as the process of Mosiah's realization of these difficulties, and as the situation in which he was able to hand over to the Nephites an entirely different era. The book is, in other words, a transition from the cyclical nonsense of the political situation of the small plates to the cyclical nonsense of the political situation of the Book of Alma. The transition is focused on one person alone: Mosiah.
Free agency, political accountability, and separation of church and state
At the end of the book of Mosiah, King Mosiah II explicitly draws for us one of the major lessons of the book. He points back to his father Benjamin and says that if one could always count on kings to be as good as Benjamin, then the ideal political system would be monarchy (29:13-15). But he then points back to Noah as an example of how much damage can be caused by a king who is bad (29:16-18). In the final chapters of Mosiah, Chapters 25-29, Mosiah II introduces two significant social reforms that help to limit the amount of damage that a single wicked individual like Noah can inflict on an entire society.
The first reform, in Chapter 26, is the separation of church and state. In Zarahemla, Mosiah I, Benjamin, and Mosiah II were all priest-kings who served as both the religious and political leaders of their people. Down south in the land of Nephi, Noah had similar power to put down all the priests who had been consecrated by his father King Zeniff and appoint his own priests (11:4-5). But Mosiah II deprives future Nephite political leaders of the ability to meddle in religious affairs. Although it is Mosiah II who appoints Alma to succeed him as the supreme religious leader over the church (26:8), he also sets Alma up to do this independently of the king. Thus when difficulties soon arise in the church, King Mosiah II refuses to meddle and tells Alma to resolve the matter himself (26:11-12). And, though this is not spelled out explicitly in Mosiah 25-29, we are not informed of even one attempt over the next 125 years by a Nephite political leader to influence the appointment of a religious leader.
The second reform introduced by Mosiah II, in Chapter 29, is democracy. Mosiah II institutes a system of elected judges, including an elected chief judge or governor who is accountable for his conduct in office by the need to periodically stand for re-election (Alma __:__). We are never told about internal checks on the power of government through a system of checks and balances, or separation of powers, such as the division of powers among legislative, executive, and judicial branches. But we are clearly told on several occasions that the judges who rule over the Nephites are accountable through the mechanism of periodic elections.
These two reforms can be seen to grow out of fundamental gospel principles. In Lectures on Faith, faith is identified as a principle of action on the rationale that a person would not act to plant in the spring unless he first had faith that he would be able to harvest in the fall. But faith is not the only principle or determinant of action:
- Head. If your neighbor offers to pay you $25,000 for mowing his lawn, it will not happen because the offer is way too high and you do not believe that your neighbor intends to fulfill his promise.
- Heart. If your neighbor instead offers to pay only 25 cents, you believe that he would in fact fulfill the promise to pay such a small price, but the lawn still does not get mowed because you do not desire such a small amount badly enough to go do the work.
- Hands. If your neighbor offers $25, then you might well mow his lawn — unless you are physically unable because just broke your arm and are leaving to go to the hospital.
All three of these principles or determinants of action must align before there is action. Any of these three is enough to prevent action.
Free agency can be understood in terms of these three principles of action. Samuel the Lamanite taught the Nephites that they were free to act because they had been taught the truth regarding the nature of the choices before them and because they were at liberty to act on those choices (Hel 14:30-31). In other words, they were free to act on their desires, or to follow their hearts, because their heads were filled with accurate information upon which to base their choices, and because their hands were free or at liberty to act on those choices.
The two institutions of church and state can in turn be understood in terms of this model of free agency. One of the key roles of the church is to provide, or to fill people's heads with, accurate information about the true nature of the choices before them, including eternal consequences. A key role of the state is to protect the liberty of its citizens so that they can, unless they seek to injure others, freely act on their desires in the manner informed by their beliefs. In other words, people such as the Nephites to whom Samuel was speaking enjoy the fullest free agency when the church provides them with accurate information and the state protects their liberty to act on that information. Not surprisingly, the two social institutions repeatedly denounced in the Book of Mormon are those that attack these same two elements of free agency: priestcrafts that seek gain by teaching false doctrine, and secret combinations that seek gain through murder and overthrowing government.
When the reforms of Mosiah II are viewed from this perspective, they can be seen as institutionalizing the protection of free agency, one of the central issues debated in the Council in Heaven (Moses 4:3), the only "right" claimed in the Articles of Faith (AF 10), and the one thing that the Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches will cause a society to be destroyed when denied to its members (Alma 10:22; Hel 13:14; also Hel 13:14). So the two reforms instituted by Mosiah II are not merely interesting historical facts. They are lessons about how a people can safeguard its free agency against the likes of Noah.
One of the key purposes of the earlier parts of Mosiah, in turn, is to use examples (King Benjamin in Chapters 1-6, King Noah in Chapters 11-19) to teach us the importance of safeguarding free agency so we can appreciate the importance of these reforms when they are finally enacted by Mosiah II at the end of the book (Chapters 25-29).
Complete outline and page map
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- III. Abinadi preaches to Noah, Alma converted (11-19)
- • king Noah's wickedness, Abinadi's public preaching (Chapter 11-12a)
- • king Noah as a wicked king (11:1-15)
- • Lamanite threat and Abinadi's warning to repent (11:16-19, 20-26, 27-29)
- • Abinadi's second warning to repent (12:1-8)
- • people are angry and deliver Abinadi to king Noah (12:9-16)
- • Noah's priests interrogate Abinadi (Chapters 12b-16)
- • Abinadi condemned, Alma pleads for Abinadi and flees (17:1-5)
- • Abinadi stands by his testimony (17:6-10)
- • Noah does not release Abinadi for fear of his priests (17:11-13)
- • Abinadi's dying prophecy (17:14-20)
- • those who do and do not follow Abinadi's message (Chapters 18-19)
- • Alma preaches at the Waters of Mormon, those who follow (18:1-35)
- • Fulfillment of Abinadi's prophecies on those who do not (19:1-29)
- • king Noah's wickedness, Abinadi's public preaching (Chapter 11-12a)
- III. Abinadi preaches to Noah, Alma converted (11-19)
- Chapter 25: Mosiah II gives Alma authority over the church
- Chapter 26: the church expels the wicked who will not repent
- Chapter 27a: the state prohibits those who persecute the church
- Chapter 27b: the Lord stops those who preach against the church
- Chapters 28-29: Mosiah II gives the plates to Alma and the government to the people
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Prompts for life application
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Prompts for further study
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The original 1830 edition of Mosiah was divided into only thirteen chapters (I-XIII). For the 1879 edition Parley Pratt further divided those thirteen into the twenty nine chapters (1-29) still used today. • I: 1-3 • II: 4 • III: 5 • IV: 6 • V: 7-8 • VI: 9-10 • VII: ch.11-13:24 • VIII: 13:25-ch.16 • IX: 17-21 • X: 22 • XI: 23-27 • XII: 28:1-19 • XIII: 28:20-ch.29
References cited on this page.
- LDS Institute Book of Mormon Student Manual (PDF version): Mosiah 1-3 (18/56) • Mosiah 4-8 (19/56) • Mosiah 9-17 (20/56) • Mosiah 18-24 (21/56) • Mosiah 25-29 (22/56). Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009.
Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves (such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word). In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources (such as Strong's Bible Concordance or the Joseph Smith Papers) are preferable to footnotes.