I was visited of the Lord, and tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus.
Within the space of 400 years, the people of Lehi descended from inexpressible joy in the presence of the Savior of the world to inexpressible misery in the thrall of Satan. In Mormon’s words, they went through a “complete revolution,” an utter about-face from the arms of the Savior into the chains of the Devil.
When Jesus was among them, the happiness they felt was beyond their ability to describe: “No tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.” Words failed them in their attempt to define the depth of their joy.
The opposite was true for their descendants. By the fourth century, perhaps no people in history had sunk so low, had become so brutal. Rape, torture, slaughter, and cannibalism reigned. Mormon characterized the profound misery of his people as “the sorrowing of the damned.” Words failed him as he attempted to describe their pain: “The suffering of our women and children upon all the face of the land doth exceed everything; yea, tongue cannot tell, neither can it be written.”
The question posed by the title of this lesson is a sober one: how indeed could a people described as the happiest people created by the hand of God fall so low into depravity, “strong in their perversion . . . without principle and past feeling?”
The revolution did not come all at once. It was a gradual process with apparently innocent beginnings.
Lifted up in pride
After nearly 200 years of happiness and prosperity in the wake of the Savior’s ministry among them, things began to change for the Book of Mormon people. The first inkling of trouble came amidst prosperity. “They had become exceedingly rich, because of their prosperity in Christ. And now in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world.”
Pearls have always been a source of wealth in Central America, from the Sea of Cortez to Panama . A pearl found in Las Perlas Islands off Panama was said to weigh 250 carats, and the Conquistadors exported huge quantities of pearls to Spain . To the Nephites, the possession of fine pearls became a status symbol. What bitter irony to trade the kingdom of Heaven for a pearl, when the Savior had clearly taught that the Gospel is the “pearl of great price,” worth all that we possess.
Pride in the heart, what the prophet Jeremiah called zadon, has always been the main downfall of the house of Israel. President Ezra Taft Benson taught that “pride is the great stumbling block to Zion. I repeat, pride i s the great stumbling block to Zion.”
Divided into classes
Once pride of possessions had entered the hearts of the people, “from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them. And they began to be divided into classes.” Class divisions are motivated by selfishness, Mormon makes clear. The class division came about “because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, of their oppression of the poor, withholding their substance from the hungry.” All of a sudden the mindset of the Nephites shifted from “ours” to “mine.” The concept of sharing was abruptly abandoned. Common ownership of goods and substance disappeared, a sign of the loss of love for one another among the rapidly degenerating former followers of Christ.
Class divisions work against the Atonement, which includes the doctrine of being one in Christ. President Benson said, “Pride is enmity toward our fellowmen. We are tempted daily to elevate ourselves above others and diminish them. The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others.”
Class divisions soon became divisions into parties and tribes. Those who rejected the Gospel outright came to be called Lamanites; those who held on to the Savior were called Nephites. It’s interesting to point out that this division was apparently not a matter of family descent, but a political-religious choice. The enmity between these two parties became more and more bitter until “both the people of Nephi and the Lamanites had become exceedingly wicked one like unto another.” There were no longer good guys and bad guys-they were all bad guys.
Building up churches to get gain
All at once came an evil flowering of “churches” that became sources of income to their initiators: “they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain.” Starting out partisans of minor disagreements about “parts of the Gospel,” they soon blossomed into large enterprises that denied the Christ entirely. “They did multiply exceedingly because of iniquity, and because of the power of Satan who did get hold upon their hearts.”
As a result the Lord withdrew priesthood authority (the “beloved disciples”) from their midst, “and the work of miracles and of healing did cease because of the iniquity of the people . . . and the Holy Ghost did not come upon any, because of their wickedness and unbelief.” When people reject access to the Spirit of God and revelation, they automatically turn to counterfeit sources of inspiration: “There were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this slide from God to the Devil was its rapidity. Mormon indicates that the first problems arose in “the two hundred and first year”; by the time “two hundred and ten years had passed away there were many churches in the land.” It took only nine years for the followers of Christ to wander off into a sort of generalized state of iniquity.
This was the situation-further degenerated-into which the prophet Mormon was born about 310 years after Christ. His birth came at the end of a century of moral collapse. “Wickedness did prevail upon the face of the whole land” and “war began to be among them.”
Apparently the contending parties of Nephites and Lamanites had avoided war until this point. After all, they were a great and prosperous civilization, and war was not in the interest of the business class: “The whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea.” We are informed that “gold and silver did they lay up in store in abundance, and did traffic in all manner of traffic.”
The foundations of their economy, however, were selfishness and corruption. “Gadianton robbers . . . did infest the land.” An economy built on organized crime is of course totally untrustworthy, so the people “began to hide up their treasures . . . and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land.” As I write this lesson, I’m forcefully reminded of the predatory behavior of powerful interests in our own day who have recently brought to us a global crisis of trust-and the savings and investments of millions of people are now quite “slippery.
We don’t know what ignited the war-perhaps a territorial dispute, as we learn that it began “in the borders of Zarahemla, by the waters of Sidon.” The Lamanites apparently had “designs” on Nephite property. At first there were only skirmishes, but in each year the war was renewed and the Nephites lost ground as they were driven inexorably northward away from their heartland. Eventually, “blood and carnage spread throughout all the face of the land, both on the part of the Nephites and also on the part of the Lamanites, and it was one complete revolution throughout all the face of the land.”
For many years, the faithful general Mormon reluctantly tried to beat back the Lamanite threat. In the 362 nd year, after decades of warfare, the Nephites had apparently succeeded, but instead of settling for peace they insisted on a pre-emptive attack “to avenge themselves.” “Boasting of their own strength,” they swore they would annihilate the Lamanite threat. Here Mormon drew the line; he “did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and a leader of this people.”
The great destruction
This disastrous pre-emptive war dragged on for years. Eventually Mormon relented and led his people in their final battle against the Lamanites, in which the enfeebled Nephites were “hewn down” without mercy. Injured and dying, surveying the battlefield, Mormon was “rent with anguish because of the slain of my people.”
“O ye fair ones,” he cried. “How could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you!”
The tragedy is that they could have turned to Jesus at any time and found rescue in His loving arms, but their pride wouldn’t permit it. They actively refused to “come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God”; it was their refusal to repent and come unto Christ that doomed them. This refusal was not a result of ignorance of the Gospel; it was a deliberate choice. We are told “they did not dwindle in unbelief; but they did willfully rebel against the gospel of Christ.”
How can ye stand?
Mormon’s account of the downfall of his people is intended as a lesson for us today. Indeed, Mormon addresses us directly and with full knowledge of our own situation: “O ye Gentiles, how can ye stand before the power of God, except ye shall repent and turn from your evil ways?” We as a people and as individuals are just as much at risk of destruction as Mormon’s people were.
It is perfectly possible for each of us to travel the same downward route the people of Lehi traveled. After all, at one time “they had Christ for their shepherd.” As we point with alarm at the worldly trends around us, we should never forget that we ourselves, no matter what kind of testimony we have or faith we hold to, are vulnerable.
Are we lifted up in pride? Are our hearts set on fine apparel and the vain things of the world? Do we have enmity for others? Are we “class conscious,” filled with contempt for people who disagree with us or live in different ways? Do we engage in predatory business practices? Is money our god? Are we warlike, abusive, hateful, vengeful, delighting in the destruction-moral, physical, or spiritual-of other people? If we are any of these things to any degree, we have need of repentance.
Because we are vulnerable ourselves, we cannot stand alone without Jesus Christ. We must turn to him in every thought, word, and deed and repent continually if we hope to stand at all. Surrounded with evil, Mormon was able to stand because he “tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus.”
There is absolute security in the Savior. As Mormon pointed out, if his people had repented, “they might have been clasped in the arms of Jesus.” And that is the promise to each of us. Imagine yourself clasped in the arms of Jesus, and then consider what you would give in exchange for that experience.