Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
President Ezra Taft Benson declared, “The Book of Mormon was written for us today. . . . God, who knows the end from the beginning, told [Mormon] what to include in his abridgement that we would need for our day” (“Book of Mormon is the Word of God,” April 1975). In approaching the missionary experiences of Ammon and his brothers, one of the most important lessons for us to learn is how they are relevant to our time. I hope that you enjoyed these chapters as you were reading them. They are some of my favorite scriptural passages. These chapters are what missionary work is all about—both the sorrow and the joy, the depths of despair and the spiritual highs, the rejection and the success. In these chapters we see both extremes.
The Sons of Mosiah
The sons of Mosiah were determined to share the gospel with the Lamanites, even though they were “a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites” (Alma 17:14; see also Alma 26:23–25). To me, that would constitute a good reason not to go among them with a message of repentance. It is hard enough to open your mouth and share the gospel with our own friends and relatives. They had an even stronger reason why they felt they must share the gospel with the Lamanites: “They were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish” (Mosiah 28:3). The very thought that any soul “should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.” And why could they not bear this thought? Because they had experienced a portion of that torment. Alma records that he had been redeemed from “the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity.” He describes himself as being in the “darkest abyss,” and his soul was “racked with eternal torment.” Thankfully, the Lord saw fit to “snatch” him out of “everlasting burning,” after “wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death” (Mosiah 27:28-29). The sons of Mosiah must also have experienced a portion of that torment, although we have no record of their experiences.
What might King Mosiah have been thinking when he heard the news of his sons’ desire. It must have seemed to him like their wanting to go into Afghanistan or Syria to preach the gospel in our 21st century world. Not surprisingly, he sought confirmation from the Lord. If I were a parent, I think that I would be seeking a similar conformation. What was the confirmation that Mosiah received? “Let them go up, for many shall believe on their words, and they shall have eternal life; and I will deliver thy sons out of the hands of the Lamanites” Mosiah 28:7. As we read their story, we find many times when this is literally fulfilled.
An Instrument in the Hands of the Lord
Fast forwarding to Ammon’s description of his role among the Lamanites. “Behold, our brethren, the Lamanites, were in darkness, yea, even in the darkest abyss, but behold, how many of them are brought to behold the marvelous light of God! And we have been made instruments in the hands of God to bring about this great work” Alma 26:3.
I like this term, “instruments in the hands of God.” What do you think that it means to be an instrument? What is the difference between instruments and tools? Consider a screwdriver and a dental instrument, like a scaler. God could have used the word tool, but he chose to use the word instrument. Who can use a screwdriver? Almost anyone, including me! On the other hand, who can use dental instruments? Only those who have been trained to use them — like my dentist husband for instance. In a moment, I am going to illustrate a few training lessons we can learn from Ammon as we go about our own missionary and inviting experiences.
I like an analogous story that Clyde J. Williams gives on this point.1 Even using the analogy of tools, we can learn much.
Some years ago I was building a shed next to my home. I had some three-inch screws which I was using to build a frame for some shelving. I asked my son to go over to the neighbors and borrow a power drill so that “turning the screws in” would not be such a tedious job. He returned with a rechargeable power drill. I thought, this will be great, no cord to worry about or step on. However, I found that as I tried to put in the screws, the drill would take them in about half-way, and then the power would give out. The battery-powered drill did not have sufficient power for the difficult task. I told my son to take the drill back and ask the neighbor for his other drill because the rechargeable one did not have enough power for the job I was doing. When he returned with the other drill, we plugged it into the outlet in our home. I found that I now had more than enough power to drive the screws all the way into the wood. Both power drills were instruments in my hands; however, only one was able to perform the task that I needed done.
Then he goes on to a add a very poignant point.
As missionaries and servants of the Lord we might ask ourselves, “Am I like the rechargeable drill trying to get by on spirituality stored up from past experiences, or am I striving to be in tune continually so I am like a power drill that is plugged into the source of all power?” Ammon and his brothers understood this principle and thus, because of their preparation, they were like fine precision tools in the hands of the Lord. They were continually “plugged in” to the central source of power.
It was because they were “plugged in” that they were able to keep going at times of doubt and discouragement. We read about how the sons of Mosiah prepared for their undertaking in Alma 17:9-12. Although not explicitly stated in these verses, why do you think that they started to “fast and pray much” as they approached Lamanite territory? They were probably pretty nervous. It’s one thing to be full of high ideals when you’re surrounded by family and safety. It’s another thing to be able to maintain those ideals when the environment isn’t nearly as hospitable. “And it came to pass that the Lord did visit them with his Spirit, and said unto them: Be comforted. And they were comforted” (Alma 17:10).
I think this is a powerful passage. The simplicity of the wording may not do justice to the fears in their hearts. Were the Lord’s words “be comforted” audible? or spoken to their hearts and minds? Regardless, they knew it was the Lord, and that was sufficient. I believe this is one of the most frequent forms of personal revelation received by disciples of the Lord in our day.
Having received their assurance from the Lord, they set off once again. In these chapters, we read about some tremendous missionary success and the question that came to my mind as I was reading this is “Why?” What is it that makes them so successful? So, with that in mind, let’s look at some of the characteristics of Ammon and Aaron.
Principles of Preparation for Effective Missionary Work
1. Spiritual Preparation Alma 17:2-3
First, they searched the scriptures diligently that they might know the word of God. This is in contrast to the priests of Noah who knew what the scriptures said, but “had not applied [their] hearts to understanding” (Mosiah 12:26). Similarly Antionah, the chief ruler of Ammonihah, knew about the story of the Garden of Eden, but had no idea what it meant. Keep in mind that not that long before this, the sons of Mosiah had been rebellious youths, and yet now they are expounding great doctrinal subjects to the Lamanites. They had done their homework. Bearing testimony of the truths of the gospel is a very powerful tool, but there are times when people want answers in addition to a testimony. Hugh B. Brown once said, “I know you know the gospel is true, but do you know the gospel?” As we have already mentioned, they had given themselves to much prayer and fasting.
2. Looked for and Created Teaching Moments
There are two incidents involving Ammon that I think are classic examples of creating teaching moments. The first one is when Ammon first entered into the land of Ishmael. Just as his father feared, he was immediately captured, bound and brought before King Lamoni. Alma 17:20-25 What is the first question that Lamoni asks Ammon? “Do you want to dwell with us?” He replies that he will stay there until he dies, if necessary, and serve the king. (This is the same approach that Aaron will use later with Lamoni’s father). Lamoni could not help but recognize that Ammon was truly interested in the Lamanites and their welfare. He doesn’t want to be their king, which is the exact opposite of many other Nephite dissenters who come over to the Lamanites and are only after power.
The first thing Ammon does is to build a relationship.
1. Alma 17:11 He is a good example.
2. Alma 17:25 He gives service.
3. Alma 17:29 He tries to win their hearts.
4. Alma 18:3 He is a friend.
5. Alma 18:5 He awakens conscience.
6. Alma 18:10 He is faithful — the best friend Lamoni could ever have.
7. Alma 18:16 He perceives thoughts by the Spirit.
8. Alma 18:20 He speaks boldly.
Next, he finds out what Lamoni knows. Alma 18:24-29. “Believest thou that there is a God?” He then resolves his concerns. He keeps it simple, remembering that this is Primary, not Gospel Doctrine class. Alma 18:30-32 In verse 34, he testifies that there is a God: “I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God, and I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true.”
Next, he teaches the “plan of redemption” which was established “from the foundation of the world,” and of the “coming of Christ” (Alma 18:36, 39) He taught the creation, the fall, and the atonement — the three pillars of eternity, according to Elder Bruce R. McConkie. He also reviewed with them the “records and scriptures from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem down to the present time.” He testified of the truth of his words, and “the king believed all his words” (Alma 18:40). Finally, he got him to pray (Alma 18:41).
Fast forwarding to Alma 22, we see that Aaron also uses this same method to get the king to receive his testimony. Aaron uses the same teaching method used by Ammon, starting with the plan of salvation, and then creating a desire for repentance. After he has done all this, the king asks what he should do “that [he] may be born of God” and he also offers to give up all that he possesses. (See Alma 22:15) Aaron tells him that if this is his desire, he should “repent of all [his] sins, and bow down before God, and call on his name in faith” (Alma 22:16). There is nothing more powerful than the sincere prayer of a seeker of truth.
The king bowed down upon his knees before the Lord, prostrating himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying:
O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day (Alma 22:18).
Whenever I have been in the presence of an investigator uttering his or her first prayer, I have felt like I was on sacred ground, and that I was witnessing a holy moment in time.
Such special moments are etched upon my soul, and I realize that I have been given a sacred privilege.
The second teaching moment involves Ammon’s meeting with Lamoni’s father. Ammon makes a powerful impression on the king. He is amazed that Ammon does not take the opportunity to smite him when he is attacked, when he was in the position to do so, and the king is even more impressed by the great love he had for his son Lamoni (Alma 20:26). Ammon had created another teaching moment, but note that he wasn’t the one to reap the rewards—that was left to his brother Aaron.
3. They were successful because the Lamanites were willing to pay a price.
It doesn’t matter how good the missionary is if the people they are teaching are not willing to make commitments. Specifically, let’s look at the reaction of Lamoni’s father. What price is he willing to pay to know for himself that God lives? (Alma 22:15 ) He is willing to give up all that he possesses. Note that when he was confronting Ammon and bargaining for his life, he was only willing to give up a half of his possessions. Now he is willing to give it all.
King Lamoni’s father is also willing to pay the price of giving up all his sins to know God. This is a most interesting statement. When I took a Book of Mormon class from Michael Wilcox, he used an example from C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, to illustrate this point. The book presents a wonderful story about repentance, and how we hang on to our favorite sins, like our pet lizards. This story is about a bus ride from hell to heaven, with the offer that all who want to stay, can stay. One young man wanted to stay, but he had his pet lizard with him. It kept making noise and whispering things to him that were inappropriate in heaven. His Angel guide asks him a question as he starts to depart. Here is a portion of the conversation…
“Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the Angel.
“Of course I would.”
“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel. “Don’t you want to kill him?”
“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything
“Well,” said the young man, “for the moment, I was only thinking about silencing it.”
“May I kill it?” said the Angel. “There is no time.”
“Please—really—don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it will be all right now.”
“May I kill it?”
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure. I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”
“The gradual process is of no use at all,” said the Angel.
“Well, I’ll think it over. … Some other day, perhaps.”
“There is no other day. All days are present now.”
“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so.”
“Why, you’re hurting me now.”
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
“Why are you torturing me? How can I let you tear me in pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the thing without asking me – before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.”
“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?”
As the angel’s hands were almost closed on the lizard, it began to speak. “Be careful,” it said. “He could kill me. Then you’d be without me… You’d only be sort of a ghost, not a real man as you are now…”
“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.
“I know it will kill me.”
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then may I?”
“Get it over with,” whimpered the Ghost.
Next moment, the ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on earth. The angel closed its grip on the lizard while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.
Slowly, the bright strong form of a man materializes where the form of the young ghost had been. At the same time, the lizard’s form changes into a great stallion, which he mounts, and, after embracing the angel, rides up higher and higher “into the dawn of the everlasting morning.” C.S. Lewis comments in the form of a song that the strengths that once opposed your will, will become obedient fire in your blood and heavenly thunder in your voice.
I love this story from C.S. Lewis. We want the peace the gospel brings without the pain of giving up our favorite sins. But sacrifice is what gives us power. We sing that “sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.” (W.W. Phelp’s hymn, #27, Praise to the Man)
After King Lamoni emerges from his redemptive trance, we see him teaching his own people. (See Alma 19:31.) We could liken this to the power of native missionaries in preaching the gospel. The people have no more disposition to do evil — a mighty change of heart. (See Alma 19:33)
If we remember these basic doctrines, then we will understand the most important principles of being a good missionary. The sons of Mosiah didn’t go out to change their world from the outside, they followed Christ’s pattern and targeted the souls of men. In doing so, they forever changed the environment of these Lamanites. As President Ezra Taft Benson has said, “Christ changes men, and changed men change their environment.”
Why is Abish’s name mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
The mention of a Lamanitish woman named “Abish” in Alma 19:16
places her in the company of only a few women whose personal names
are given in the Book of Mormon text. In Hebrew, Abish’s name means, “Father is a man.” There are other names in the Hebrew Bible that include the word “ab” or “av,” father. Abner means “father is light.” Absalom means “father is peace.” Abimelech means “father is a king.” These names referred to not only the mortal father of the one bearing the name, as well as to Heavenly Father. God had all these qualities – light, peace, kingship, and hopefully, the mortal father emulates these qualities as well.
So why is Abish’s name mentioned in the Book of Mormon. As Brant Gardner observes, “The preservation of her name is even more remarkable … not only [because she was] a
woman, but she was a servant. Both factors would virtually guarantee her anonymity. Even the queen [i.e., Lamoni’s wife] is not named” (Brandt Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Textual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume 4:Alma (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 303. The only other names mentioned are Mary, Sarah, Sariah, Eve, and Isabel. It makes it extremely important that Abish’s name is mentioned specifically in the Book of Mormon.
To set the stage, let’s consider some of the strange aspects of the events that surround the story Abish is involved with? Why does Lamoni purposely kill the servants that tend his flocks, and thus reduce his work force and possibly his armed forces? Why don’t the servants even try to fight back against the robbers? Why don’t the robbers seem to take away any of the animals they are scattering? Why do the robbers show up later on in the king’s very own house? Wouldn’t they have been apprehended, or killed there? This is very odd behavior from our perspective.
Victor Worth (Book of Mormon Central) proposes some interesting ideas. He notes that Lamoni calls these robbers “my brethren” in Alma 18:20. It would seem that this is literally true – these were Lamoni’s relatives, fellow elites of the royal class. They could have been rival factions of the family clan, who continually fought each other for ascendancy. The terms robber or thief in the Book of Mormon and in the Old Testament, refer to members of an organized band that was subversive to the law or the legitimate government. Thus, this attempt of the brethren of Lamoni to scatter his flocks is more an attempt to weaken and destabilize the standing of King Lamoni as the current ruler, rather than an attempt to get rich by stealing the sheep. Any attempt by peasants, such as the servants, to kill one of these royals would have been punished by immediate execution. Lamoni himself might not have been able to confront them directly, as they might have been under the protection of his father. The servants were in a “no win” situation – hence their despair. In executing his servants, Lamoni may have been just following the violent ruling style of his father, or he may have punished the servants as a way of saving face. Worth points out that these relatives would have been free to come and go as they pleased in the house of the king or other official areas, so their presence would not have aroused controversy. They had “diplomatic immunity,” as it were.
Then Ammon comes on the scene, a Nephite prince. King Lamoni’s first action makes perfect sense. He offers to form an alliance through marriage, as a way to strengthen his position against his local rivals. He does this in the common way – by offering his daughter in marriage to make Ammon part of his own family. When Ammon refuses, he hits on another plan. His own royal servants could not face off against these rivals without involving Lamoni directly, but this Nephite prince could legitimately be able take action against the robbers without damaging Lamoni’s reputation in the least. It was the perfect political game. He could potentially damage his rivals with complete impunity, but if Ammon were killed in the process, he would be no worse off.
But the whole affair goes better than he had ever imagined, and it scares him. His rivals are totally routed. But there now seems to be a supernatural element involved here. Did Ammon really come from the Nephites, or did he come from heaven? His servants say, “Surely, this is more than a man, For behold, is not this the Great Spirit who doth send great punishments upon this people, because of their murder?” (Alma 18:2). Whether he be the Great Spirit or a man, we know not; . . .we do not believe that a man has such great power” Lamoni agrees, “Now this is the Great Spirit of whom our fathers have spoken” (Alma 18:3-4).
Even after Ammon denies this, and says that he is but a man, after this episode at the waters of Sebus, Ammon is taken to be a god, sent from heaven. Instead, he explains that he just has a portion of God’s spirit in him so that he can do these great things. He then explains how God is the creator, how the split between the Nephites and the Lamanites started in the first place, and most importantly, he teaches about the mission of Jesus Christ. All of this centers on the condescension of God – the Divine becoming mortal.
So when Lamoni wakes up from his trancelike state, he declares to his wife, “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” (Alma 19:12-13). His first testimony is that of the condescension of God – the descent of Jehovah, the premortal Jesus Christ, into the world as a mortal man.
Worth notes here that Nephi, Abinadi, Alma, and other Nephite prophets all refer to the premortal Christ as “Jesus Christ the son of God, the father of heaven and of earth” (Helaman 14:12, Mosiah 3:8 and elsewhere). The Nephites had no problem recognizing Christ’s roles as both the Son and, in some very important ways, as Father.
Worth demonstrates how Ammon’s actions fit perfectly in context of this key doctrine of condescension. They are a parallel of the mission of Jesus Christ. Consider that Lamoni’s servants were doomed to certain death the moment they were assigned to guard his flocks, just as we are doomed to death from the moment we arrive into the world. Whether the servants fought the robbers or not, they’d be killed, they were powerless to save themselves, just as we are powerless to save ourselves from our own sins, to say nothing of the death of the body. But onto the scene stepped the son of a king, with apparent superhuman abilities. This person voluntarily descended to the lowest social status, when he could have remained with the nobility. He rallied the other servants and sent them after the flocks, while he alone faced the enemy and defeated them. Shortly thereafter, he appeared to die, but revived again and converted large numbers of people to the truth.
In the same way, Jesus descended to earth, enduring privation and humiliation, so that he could give us hope, and do that which only he could do, frustrating the cunning plans of the evil one. This striking parallel was not lost on Mormon, as he reworked and retold Ammon’s story. In fact, Worth says that Moroni might be sad and surprised that we have missed this important connection!
The central issue is the condescension of God Jehovah becoming a mortal man to save humanity. So, the converted Lamanites, and Mormon, the editor, must have thought it very appropriate that the name of the woman who helps facilitate this conversion is named, “father is a man.” And so he recorded the name of this lowly servant for future generations as a sign. The meaning of her name would be obvious to those who spoke some form of Hebrew and would have been that much more an illustration of the centrality of Christ’s descent into mortality – thus the need to mention her name specifically. The problem, of course, is that we moderns don’t speak Hebrew, and so we missed it.
In speaking of Abish, we can’t pass over the fact of her great courage. Even thou she was just a servant, she boldly injected herself into that hotly charged dialogue around Ammon and the queen. But the pinnacle of her bravery is when she advances and touches the queen. Remember that the last person who tried to touch one of these supernatural sleepers dropped dead on the spot. So she is definitely a hero.
Then there is the matter of her own conversion. Does the “remarkable vision of her father” refer to a vision that her father had, or did her father appear to her in a vision? We can’t tell from the text, but given her great spiritual acuity, I personally favor the latter. Would not such a vision have galvanized her into the woman of power that she became? Someday, I plan to ask her about it.
Matthew Bowen agrees with me in this opinion. He writes, “the fact that Abish correctly comprehended the theophanic character of the visions that Lamoni and his wife saw suggest that the vision that converted her was similar in character.” (Matthew L. Bowen, Father Is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the Name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 14 (2015): 77-93)
We may never know what impact our testimony might have on other people. We might wonder if our one voice can make a difference. Yet we must remember that each person’s testimony began with the testimony of someone else. There will be times in each of our lives when we will be called upon to :stand as a witness” of what we believe.
Although we read nothing more about Abish from this point in the Book of Mormon, as the narrative continues, we see a vital transformation in the history of her people. Her one voice played a critical role in the lives of thousands of Lamanites as they were brought to the knowledge of the Lord. Her actions changed many lives in ways that can only be measured in eternity.
Heather B. Moore noted:
More than a century later, the Savior Himself explained how a servant could have such a great influence: “For he that is least among you all, the same shall be great” (Luke 9:48). Like Abish, we are servants in our Father’s kingdom, and our testimonies do make a difference. When we have the courage to stand as a witness, we may not realize what an impact our single testimony may have on another.
Another interesting article about Abish can be found here.
The Power of the Plan of Salvation
Recently, my sister shared a special experience related by her neighbor about her son’s mission in Japan. I am sharing it with you here, because it illustrates just how powerful learning about the plan of salvation can be in the life of people who have no idea of what the purpose of life might be.
I contacted this missionary, Kyle Johnston, to get the story firsthand. He served a mission fifteen years ago in North Tokyo, Japan. He worked in the mission office as an assistant to President Henry Eyring, President Eyring’s son. With his permission, I share his story.
A group of Chinese people from the mainland were attending a business conference in Utah. Apparently, someone in the company invited the group to attend a sacrament meeting there. One of the missionaries was contacted by the leader of this group. He said, “I am bringing a hundred Chinese people to church this Sunday. Could you please talk about the plan of salvation?” I don’t know the exact details about the Utah end of the story, but apparently, the Chinese people were so interested, they stayed and kept asking question after question. As I understand the story, they stayed and listened and absorbed the gospel for hours into the night. They only had a couple of days in Utah, but they wanted to learn the gospel during every moment of their free time.
On their way back to China, they stopped in Tokyo. President Eyring was contacted and told that there was a large group of Chinese people who wanted to get baptized before they returned to the People’s Republic of China. He told Elder Johnston and his mission staff, “We will need all the white shirts and Chinese speakers that we can find so we can teach, interview, and baptize all these people.” They all set about to find all the Chinese speaking people they could, and six were found. They worked for an entire day and a half interviewing people for six to eight hours at a time, talking to them through translators, and baptizing them in large groups as they were ready. The missionaries worked from early morning until late into the night, getting special permission to stay out past the usual mission hours. They performed baptisms for 330 people in just thirty-six hours. Elder Johnston said that this experience was one of the highlights of his mission. As I contemplate what it is going to take to bring the billion and a half of our Chinese brothers and sisters in China to Christ, I have a feeling that it will be through such experiences as these. People yearn to know why they are here on earth. They yearn to know that their life has a plan. When it is presented to them, it strikes a chord of familiarity and resonates in their souls. This is the lesson I take away from the example of Ammon and the sons of Mosiah. I, too, long to be an instrument in the hands of the Lord! I want to be an Abish, unafraid to stand as a witness of God in all places and at all times.
1 Clyde J. Williams, “Instruments in the Hands of God: The Message of Alma 17-27” in The Book of Mormon: Alma, The Testimony of the Word, eds. Monte S. Nyman & Charles D. Tate, Jr. (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1992), 90.