Question: Do the conversion narratives of the Book of Mormon resemble a Methodist conversion narrative as would have been understood in Joseph Smith's time?

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Question: Do the conversion narratives of the Book of Mormon resemble a Methodist conversion narrative as would have been understood in Joseph Smith's time?

Introduction to Criticism

Critic Grant H. Palmer in his book Insider’s View of Mormon Origins alleges that many of the conversion narratives of figures in the Book of Mormon resemble those of Methodists of Joseph Smith’s day. Palmer quotes critic Brent Metcalfe:

While it may be true that elements of religious conversions in Joseph Smith’s environment derived from biblical predecessors, the congregation’s response to Benjamin’s homily follows an identical non-biblical form of spiritual regeneration developed in antebellum revivals. … This revivalistic conversion form can be illustrated from the Book of Mormon as follows:
  1. Revival Gathering (Mosiah 2:1): The Zarahemlans gather at “the temple (in tents) to hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them.”
  2. Guilt-Ridden Falling Exercise (Mosiah 4:1-2a): When “king Benjamin had made an end of speaking…he cast his eyes…on the multitide, and behold they had fallen to the earth … on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth … And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth.”
  3. Petition for Spiritual Emancipation (Mosiah 4:2b): And “they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified…”
  4. Absolution and Emotional Ecstasy (Mosiah 4:3): After “they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ…[1]

Palmer then cites and makes comparison between this model of the Methodist conversion narrative and the experiences of contemporaries of Joseph Smith including Lucy Stoddard,[2] James Porter,[3] Lorenzo Dow,[4] Eleazar Sherman,[5] Darius Williams,[6] and Abel Thornton.[7] Palmer also draws comparisons between the Methodist conversion narrative form and the conversions of Zeezrom, Lamoni’s Court, and Lamoni’s Father’s Court in the Book of Mormon. These comparisons seem to be meant to be similar enough to the Methodist conversion narrative model drawn out by Metcalfe to suggest that Joseph Smith used this model as a template for the conversion narratives in the Book of Mormon.

This article will respond to this allegation by drawing out similarities between this model and ancient conversion narratives. If similarity in conversion narratives can be drawn between the Methodist conversion narrative and ancient ones, then it will be demonstrated that the criticism relies on a false dilemma fallacy given that it may be possible that ancient writers existed that simply had similar sounding experiences to the Methodists but were actually acting in accordance with their own religious culture.

Response to Criticism

Revival Gathering

The first element of the model is that the figures are always at a revival gathering. This is quite a vague term. Lots of things could be considered a “revival gathering.” Revivals typically gather large quantities of people for series of public sermons delivered to the whole body of people for several days. Any gathering that takes place there could be considered a “revival gathering.” Doubtless the term is being used as vague as possible so as to be as broad of a term. Regardless there is ancient precedent for such “gatherings.” More can be learned about it by following the links to Book of Mormon Central to the right.

Guilt-Ridden Falling Exercise

“It is…possible that some of this process was part of a public pageant, one also known in the Old World.”[8]

Latter-day Saint scholar and apologist Hugh Nibley wrote:

On the theme of eternity, the closing sound of every royal acclamatio, King Benjamin ended his address, which so overpowered the people that they “had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them” (Mosiah 4:1). This was the kind of proskynesis at which Benjamin aimed! The proskynesis was the falling to the earth (literally, “kissing the ground”) in the presence of the king by which all the human race on the day of the coronation demonstrated its submission to divine authority; it was an unfailing part of the Old World New Year’s rites as of any royal audience.[9]

“Whether this rite would endure unchanged for more than 500 years and in two widely separated cultures is an unanswerable question. Nevertheless, it seems anthropologically sound that lowering oneself to the ground before a monarch communicates respect and humility in many cultures and contexts, whether it is specifically derived from the Old World or not.”[8]

Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch “connect their prostration with the ritual prostrations that accompanied the pronouncement of the Divine Name, YHWH, by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement:”[10]

The response of the people to the pronouncement of the sacred name was singular. According to the Mishnah, each time the people at the temple in Jerusalem heard the sacred name they would fall prostrate on the ground. This can be compared with the reactions to King Benjamin's speech in Zarahemla .... It is possible that Benjamin's people would have fallen down in profound reverence and awe several times when Benjamin spoke the holy name of God, as the Israelites did on hearing the tetragram, according to the Mishnah.[11]

It is clear that a plausible ancient context can be gathered for the “falling exercise.”

Petition for Spiritual Emancipation

As Szink and Welch observed, “[t]he idea of the New Year as a time of judgment is also found in Judaism. According to the Mishnah, it is the day when all mankind is judged.[12] In the face of this judgment, God is ‘entreated to show mercy to his creatures,’ and confidence in the mercy of God is expressed.[13] This is the only day on which modern Jews are permitted to ‘kneel and fall upon their faces.’[14] On this day, people in the Talmudic era wore white garments, and books of judgment were opened:

The completely righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life. The completely wicked are immediately inscribed in the book of death. The average persons are kept in suspension from Rosh Hashanah to the Day of Atonement. If they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life, if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death.[15]

Furthermore, Gaster suggests that the symbolism of judgment by fire (compare Ezekiel 38:18–39:16) draws upon imagery pertinent to the fall festivals.[16] Corresponding to the mood of the Mesopotamian New Year, the celebration of the Jewish New Year ‘has no traces of joy, for these are profoundly serious days, with a feeling of the heavy moral responsibility which life puts on all.’[14]

Similarly, Benjamin’s people faced a day of judgment. In his speech, Benjamin lays bare the fate of those who remain and die in their sins—enemies to God (see Mosiah 2:37–38); he spells out the nature of God’s judgment, ‘for behold he judgeth, and his judgment is just’ (Mosiah 3:18); he makes it clear that all men are subject to this judgment (see Mosiah 3:17), except little children [this in stark contrast to Methodism] (see Mosiah 3:21); and he declares that these ceremonial words shall stand to judge the people (see Mosiah 3:24–25) ‘like an unquenchable re’ (Mosiah 2:38).

Just as the Mesopotamians and the Jews were awed by the seriousness of the day, so too were the people of Zarahemla when they heard Benjamin speak about the judgment: ‘Behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them. And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth’ (Mosiah 4:1–2). Yet in the face of this judgment, mercy was sought. Benjamin’s people cried out in unison, ‘O have mercy’ (Mosiah 4:2). Mercy is mentioned by Benjamin several other times (see Mosiah 2:39; 3:26; 5:15). There is also mention of cleansing of garments (see Mosiah 2:28)[17] and of writing down the names of all the righteous who have entered into the covenant to keep God’s commandments (see Mosiah 6:1).

The later Jewish liturgy for this ‘Day of Awe’ provides further interesting points of comparison. Although this liturgy cannot be dated confidently before the time of the Crusades,[18] some of its elements could, of course, have been drawn from the substantially older traditions…Schauss gives the following account; parallels to King Benjamin’s speech are italicized and referenced in brackets, with citations to earlier biblical precedents:

The greatest and most exalted moment of the services comes when the Ark of the Torah is opened. . . . An unnatural fear grips the hearts of the worshipers [compare Mosiah 4:1; Exodus 3:6; Deuteronomy 28:58] [who]recite the words in a loud voice [Mosiah 4:2; Deuteronomy 27:14] with tears and sobs: ‘We will declare the greatness[Mosiah 4:11; Deuteronomy 5:24] and the holiness of this Day, forthereon, Thy kingdom is exalted, Thy throne established in mercy and Thou judgest in truth. It is true that Thou art the judge? [Mosiah 3:18; Genesis 31:53], Thou reprovest; Thou knowest all [Mosiah 4:9; 1 Samuel 2:3; 1 Chronicles 28:9], Thou bearest witness [Mosiah 3:24; Isaiah 55:4], recordest and sealest [Mosiah 6:1; 5:15; Isaiah 8:16]. Thou also rememberest all things that seem to be forgotten; and all that enter the world must pass before Thee [Mosiah 3:24], even as the shepherd [Mosiah 5:14; Psalms 23:1; 80:1] causes his sheep to pass under his rod. Thou numberest [Mosiah 6:1; Daniel 5:26] and countest, and visitest every living soul, appointest the limitations of all Thy creatures, and recordest [Mosiah 6:1; Deuteronomy 30:19] the sentence of their judgment.’ The moans die down and the congregation calms itself somewhat at the words: ‘But repentance [Mosiah 3:21; Proverbs 28:13; Jeremiah 35:15; Ezekiel 18:30], prayer, and charity [Mosiah 4:26; Leviticus 19:18] avert the evil decree.’[17]:300n135

Moreover, the accompanying Jewish prayer does not end here but concludes with a sharp reminder of the shortness and impotence of man’s life, contrasted with the greatness of God, and expressed in ancient biblical idioms:

How weak is man [Mosiah 2:25; Psalm 8:4]! He comes from the dust [Mosiah 2:25–26; Genesis 2:7] and returns to the dust; must toil [Mosiah 2:14; Genesis 3:19] for his sustenance; passes away like withered grass, a vanishing shadow, a fleeting dream. But Thou, O God, art eternal; Thou art King [Mosiah 2:19; Psalms 47:7; 89:18; Jeremiah 10:10] everlasting!"[19]

Spiritual Absolution and Ecstasy

“In the OT ecstasy is sometimes indicated when it is said that the Spirit of the Lord came upon someone ([Numbers 11.25; 24.2; 1 Samuel 10.6, 10; 19.20; 2 Kings 3.15; Ezekiel 3.14; 11.24]), when Ezechiel is ‘led forth’ by the Spirit ([Ezekiel] 11.24; 37.1), and, in some cases, when an individual is said to ‘behave like a prophet’ (hitnabbē', as in Nm 11.25; 1 Sm 10.5–6, 10, 13; 19.20).”[20]

Baptism as Salvific?

One lingering question that the conversion narrative brings up is why baptism wasn’t required for the salvation of individuals when modern Latter-day Saint theology and practice makes baptism necessary for salvation.

Book of Mormon scholar Brant Gardner addresses this :

According to contemporary [Latter-day Saint] theology, the remission of sins requires baptism. Perhaps we may assume that all of the people were already baptized. While this may have been the case, the text does not say so, and the historical context suggests that baptism may not have been a universal event in Nephite/Zarahemlaite life. As noted in the comments on 2 Nephi 31 where baptism is introduced to Nephi’s people, baptism performs a cleansing function, not the modern triple function of cleansing, accepting Christ by covenant, and becoming a member of his church. Baptism’s covenantal declaration of belief in Yahweh-Messiah does not become an explicit theme in the Book of Mormon until Alma1 begins baptizing in the Waters of Mormon.

Would all of the assembled people have been baptized? Certainly it is possible, but Mosiah1 (Benjamin’s father) would have had to institute it and require it of the entire people. The Zarahemlaites had forgotten Yahweh and lost most of the Mosaic law, but baptism prior to Christ’s earthly mission was known in the Old World only as a cleansing ritual. Only the Nephites, before Christ, associated that cleansing with the Messiah’s mission. Thus, the Zarahemlaites would have had no tradition of baptism connected with the Messiah’s mission, if that had any such rite at all. Mosiah might have imposed it upon the people through his authority as king, but this action would have violated the very nature of the ordinance, which requires repentance and a willing change of heart as prerequisites to accepting the Messiah. This process is inconsistent with a mandated ritual although the Old World certainly saw later examples of politically imposed baptisms.

The political and religious difficulties stemming from the clash of cultures that continued into Benjamin’s reign suggest that his people felt no universal agreement about the need for baptism as a signal of accepting Yahweh-Messiah. Although the message about the Messiah was not new to them, as we have seen, the Messianic of Benjamin’s speech and the particulars of their covenants suggest that this aspect is new to the people, at least on such a scale.

Nephi’s introduction of baptism reveals it as a new covenant, then, and one that had an ambiguous fit into known ritual. (See commentary on 2 Nephi 32:1.) When Benjamin declares the Messiah’s atonement, he says nothing about baptism as a requirement. Rather, he emphasizes the atonement itself and Christ as its provider. He implies that his people still understand the law of Moses as the means of atonement for sin. This information, combined with Alma’s new emphasis on baptism, suggests that, at this point in Nephite history, baptism is not widely practiced.

When the Spirit descended upon the assembled population of the land of Zarahemla, the collective people’s sins were cleansed. Probably many among them were not baptized, yet their faith made the atonement efficacious. In this pre-Christian environment where the forward-looking rites mixed with current law of Moses, it appears that the communal function of the Day of Atonement sacrifice prevailed over the association between the individual acceptance of Christian baptism. For Benjamin’s people, their communal acceptance stood in place of the individual baptism. Speaking from their understanding about the remission of sin through the application of sacrificial blood, they plead with Yahweh to “apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of sins” (Mosiah 4:2).[8]:3:165–66

Conclusion

Clearly it can be seen that a plausible ancient context can be developed for this phenomenon in the Book of Mormon and that each point of the theory rests on a false dilemma fallacy. Such weakness may be why Palmer had to rely on unpublished research from Metcalfe to make this argument.

Further Reading

Notes

  1. Grand H. Palmer, Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 99–100. Citing Brent Lee Metcalfe, unpublished response to Blake T. Ostler, 1987, photocopy of typescript in Palmer’s possession; used with permission. See Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Spring 1987): 66–123.
  2. George Lane, “Letter from Rev. Geroge Lane,” 25 Jan. 1825, Methodist Magazine 8 (Apr. 1825): 159.
  3. James Porter, An Essay on Camp Meetings (New York: Lane and Scott, 1849), 37.
  4. Lorenzo Dow, The Dealings of God, Man and the Devil, As Exemplified in the Life, Experience, and Travels of Lorenzo Dow (Norwich, CT: Wm. Faulkner, 1833), 14–16.
  5. Eleazar Sherman, The Narrative of Eleazar Sherman (Providence, RI: H.H. Brown, 1830), 1:11-21.
  6. George Peck, The Life and Times or Rev. George Peck, D.D. (New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1874), 108–9.
  7. Abel Thornton, The Life of Elder Abel Thornton (Providence, RI: J. B. Yerrington, 1828), 17–18, 21.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Brant H. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 3:163.
  9. Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1957), 264. Quoted in Gardner, Second Witness, 3:163. An important note from Gardner: “Although Nibley suggests that the theme of eternity marked the end of a coronation declaration, the coronation event is buried in the text, a simple declaration many verses earlier. Benjamin has not yet reached his climax—giving his people their new name.”
  10. Matthew L. Bowen, “And Behold, They Had Fallen to the Earth: An Examination of Proskynesis in the Book of Mormon,” Studia Antiqua 4, no. 1 (April 2005): 102.
  11. Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, "An Ancient Israelite Festival Context," King Benjamin's Speech: That Ye May Learn Wisdom, ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 179. Cited in Bowen, “Fallen to the Earth,” 102.
  12. See M Rosh ha-Shanah, 1:2. “On New Year’s Day all that come into the world pass before him like legions of soldiers, for it is written, He that fashioneth the hearts of them all, that considereth all their works.”
  13. Leviticus Rabbah 29:4; see TY Rosh ha-Shanah, 1:3; Louis Jacobs, “Rosh ha-Shanah,” Encyclopedia Judaica, 14:307, 309.
  14. 14.0 14.1 T. H. Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year (New York: Morrow Quill, 1978), 121.
  15. TB Rosh ha-Shanah 16b; Jacobs, “Rosh ha-Shanah,” 307.
  16. See Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year, 93.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Schauss, Jewish Festivals, 112.
  18. This may be distantly connected with the ritual of throwing one’s sins into the sea (Micah 7:19), acted out in the Tashlich custom. See Schauss, Jewish Festivals, 148. The wearing of a long white cloak was customary and was a symbol of purity; Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year, 121.
  19. Ibid. See Szink and Welch, “An Ancient Israelite Festival Context,”
  20. “Ectasy (In The Bible),” <https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ecstasy-bible> (19 August 2020).