Saturday, August 25, 2012

Prophets and Churchmen

“Unlike prophets, churchmen are the product of institutions.  In the safety and permanence of institutions they put their trust.  They resolutely oppose the prophets whom they accuse of disturbing their repose and rocking the boat” (Nibley, The World and the Prophets, p. 175).

The Book of Mormon depicts differences between religious church-goers and prophets of God.  Though there are times in which a righteous people are led by a righteous prophet or King, those periods are the exception rather than the rule.  They are otherwise strictly juxtaposed throughout the book, and really, throughout all scripture; the holy prophets are usually sent among the unbelieving, church-going mass with a message from God that is a call to repentance.    

In each of the examples given throughout the Book of Mormon the stories are different but there are common underlying themes.  One of the most striking examples is found in the story of King Noah and his Kingdom.  Yet there are other examples. 

These religious bodies of people experience cycles of belief and unbelief.  If they prosper they typically become proud.  They boast in their accomplishments, and indicate it is a sign of God's favor, but they forget God, set their hearts upon their riches, and become slothful.  When they become proud they are forced to be humble by war, famine, and pestilence.  It is very consistent that the Lord would warn his latter-day church of these things by providing the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 38:39, D&C 112:23-26, D&C 101:43-62).  

The Zoramites, for example, had descended and "dissented" from a group of people that had an understanding of the gospel (Alma 31:8).  Along the way they began to err in doctrine (Alma 31:9).  Though they thought they were pleasing to God, these errors caused them to fail in keeping the commandments of God and the law of Moses (ibid.).  They failed to pray daily, and sought not to avoid temptation (Alma 31:10).  They nevertheless "built synagogues" and gathered together "one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord" (Alma 31:12).  That was the day of their worship and devotion.  They had a pulpit that admitted one at a time.  These religious parrots would take turns approaching the elevated, "holy" stand only to speak forth vain recitations, and untruths.  They accepted the philosophies of men and devils, mingled with scripture (Alma 31:15-18).  Though they failed to pray in private, they loved to pray to be heard of men (Alma 31:21-23).  Their prayer was putrid, but not to them.  They took the name of God in vain.

Though they were in error, the Zoramites were unable to perceive the gravity of their situation because of the institutional, religious culture they chose to build for themselves, and in which they allowed their hearts and minds to be enveloped.  They were pleased with what they made for themselves because they spake only that which was pleasing to hear.  They praised God for their own "holiness" (Alma 31:17).     

Alma went among the Zoramites to preach repentance.  He was astonished at their behavior (Alma 31:19).  He noticed that the people were religious in public, and full of babylon in private (Alma 31:23-25).  After pleading with God for the people, he then set out to preach salvation in Christ who should come (see Alma 32-34).  He "clapped his hands" upon his brethren who were to go with him to preach, and they were "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Alma 31:36).

The response of the Zoramites to Alma's message of Christ is interesting.  The "popular" Zoramites, those who were "their rulers and their priests and their teachers," held a council to discuss the words of this prophet and his brethren (Alma 35:3, 5).  They had become "angry" at Alma's words, because his words "destroyed their craft" (ibid.).  They themselves chose not to hearken to his words.  But they also wanted to know what the people thought of Alma's teachings.  They sent for and gathered together the people to inquire concerning their thoughts  (Alma 35:5-6).  The fact that they found out "privily" the minds of the people is another way of saying they conducted polls.  Their inquiries were "confidential" or "secret."  The "rulers and priests" didn't want the people to know their own thoughts concerning the very teachings about which they were polling the people.  They wanted to get at the truth of the hearts of the people, but felt they nevertheless could not reveal the truth of their own hearts.  Those who were found to believe in this prophet's words were "cast out" or cut off from among the Zoramites (Alma 35:6).

These churchmen had trouble retaining truth - it was ever departing them.  They lost focus on what was really important.  

“But which is the reality – the everyday business, or the eternity that waits to receive us all?  Religion should teach that it is the latter, yet conventional Christian doctrine is a denial of that.  It is the apotheosis of institutions and routines, of old established ways, a solid and imposing dike to keep out the sea – to shut off the sight and even the memory of the sea which the Christian soul should be exploring. …When as has happened in every century, groups and individuals within the church have sought the old literalism in normal times, they have been held to display exceedingly bad taste, and vigorously suppressed” (Nibley, p. 178, supra).

The Zoramite apostates made babylon their reality instead of seeking to obey the gospel.  Whatever they thought they were preaching in public, their private lives were the real testimony.  Their prayers perhaps never reached the God of heaven, but their lives were a sacrifice on the altar to the god of this world.

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