“Ordinary People in the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Jan. 1992, 36
We may seldom refer to them in our lessons and talks, but the ordinary faithful people in the Book of Mormon can inspire and teach us as well as the prophets and leaders in that great book. Studying these ordinary men and women instructs and uplifts us without allowing us to excuse ourselves because we aren’t rulers, will never build ships like Nephi or didn’t lead armies at age sixteen like Moroni.
The Book of Mormon contains great narrative depth, telling of ordinary people—people more caught in events than shaping them, people striving to be righteous when overpowering forces weigh against them, people whose social status may be akin to our own, although the experiences themselves may differ. As we learn to identify with these ordinary characters, we see our own struggles better in light of theirs.
This view of ordinary people in the Book of Mormon may be especially valuable for women. The Book of Mormon offers few female figures that serve as examples; only six women are mentioned by name in the book, and three of those are biblical women. Yet women readers who feel bereft of scriptural mentors can gain insight by looking carefully at the ordinary characters, both named and unnamed.
Three Book of Mormon women are mentioned in sufficient detail to illustrate how we can liken ourselves to them. Perhaps we can identify with them more easily than with others to whom we more frequently refer.
One woman who is mentioned by name is Abish, the Lamanite servant to Lamoni’s queen. The story of Abish and Lamoni’s queen illustrates two different patterns of belief. Belief is often difficult to obtain, gained through years of learning, prayer, fasting, and experiences that confirm a fledgling faith.
For Abish, faith and conversion came from the teachings of her father following his experience with a remarkable vision. She had nursed her testimony in secret for years, holding tenaciously to the teachings of the gospel although no one else in her community shared her faith.
Lamoni’s queen, whose name we never learn, demonstrates a second type of faith—an immediate, instinctive knowledge that the words of God’s servant ring true.
Ammon, working as a shepherd for Lamoni, had impressed the king with his abilities. Finally the king questioned him about his beliefs, and Lamoni led him into a discussion about God. After Ammon taught the king the whole plan of redemption, the king realized that Ammon’s words were true, was overwhelmed by the Spirit of God, and sank to the ground as if dead.
After two days of kneeling at her husband’s funeral bed, mourning Lamoni, the queen sent for Ammon, whom she had not met. She told him that she doubted her husband was dead since his body had not begun to decompose or “stink.” (Alma 19:5.) Ammon went to see Lamoni, told the queen that her husband would rise the next day, then asked whether she believed this. She replied, “I have had no witness save thy word, and the word of our servants; nevertheless I believe that it shall be according as thou hast said.”
Ammon replied, “Blessed art thou because of thy exceeding faith; I say unto thee, woman, there has not been such great faith among all the people of the Nephites.” (Alma 19:9–10.)
Later, when Lamoni, his wife, and Ammon were all overcome by the Spirit, Abish’s long, faithful vigil bore fruit. She alone, of all the Lamanites in the palace, was prepared to recognize the Lord’s hand in these events. As servants in the palace reacted in confusion, she hoped that if others saw what was happening, they—along with their king and queen—would believe Ammon’s words. She rushed out, calling people to assemble in the palace of the king. The throng, unable to harm Ammon, began to turn against him, calling him a Nephite monster and blaming him for what they had suffered at the hands of the Nephites.
Watching her people abuse this man of God, Abish wept. Then she turned and took the unconscious queen by the hand, hoping to raise her from the ground. As soon as Abish touched the queen, the queen rose to her feet, blessed Jesus, and called for mercy for her unrighteous people: “O blessed Jesus, who has saved me from an awful hell! O blessed God, have mercy on this people!” (Alma 19:29.) Then she took Lamoni by the hand. He arose and began to reprimand his contentious subjects, then to teach them the principles Ammon had taught him. As he spoke, some of the unruly crowd listened and then believed all that he taught; others from the crowd turned and walked away. When Ammon rose and added his words to Lamoni’s, the remaining people admitted that their hearts had been changed, that they no longer wished to do evil, and that they wished to be baptized. Many declared that they had seen angels who had taught them of the things of God.
Miraculous events brought about the conversion of part of Lamoni’s people—those who listened and believed the gospel. These miracles followed the humility, faith, and actions of two women—Abish and the queen—who heard and recognized the truth of the gospel when it was presented to them.
These women were of vastly different stations. The queen, who held high social position, had been raised to be antagonistic to the Nephites and their teachings. Abish, the servant, who followed her commands, had been “converted unto the Lord for many years” (Alma 19:16), but could only believe in secret until she was presented with a suitable opportunity to act on her faith. Each was given power to help others understand and respond to the Spirit, which is no respecter of persons.
We are familiar with the story of Lehi’s call to leave Jerusalem. By mentally titling it “Lehi’s story” or “Nephi’s account,” we may be setting our sights toward understanding Lehi’s or Nephi’s experiences but may forget that this is also Laman’s story, Sam’s story, and Sariah’s story, as told by Nephi. His first-person account gives us his own thoughts and feelings—and also his perceptions regarding the other members of that pioneering group.
Lehi’s visions and revelations gave him strength to leave “the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things,” taking only his family, tents, and provisions into the wilderness. (1 Ne. 2:4; see also 1 Ne. 1:8–18; 1 Ne. 2:1–2.)
But not everyone who followed him was blessed with dreams; most had to trust Lehi’s vision. Laman and Lemuel were complaining by the time the group reached its first camp, a few days’ journey into the wilderness. They considered the move foolishness because “they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them.” (1 Ne. 2:12.) Yet despite their disbelief, they left Jerusalem with their father.
Nephi did not express doubts, but he intensely desired to know the mysteries of God: “I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.” (1 Ne. 2:16.)
Sariah was obligated to move with her husband; there is no evidence that she was less than supportive during the move, but neither is there evidence that she received visions. She seems to have given up her comfortable surroundings and, more important, her kinfolk, without complaint—but giving up her sons was more than she thought she could bear.
The trip back to get the brass plates may have taken more than a week. During the absence of her sons, Sariah mourned for them. Despairing that they were lost, she complained against her husband, saying, “My sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness.” (1 Ne. 5:2.)
Lehi and Sariah must have known something about the unrighteousness of their kinsman Laban. Surely Sariah had good cause to worry for the safety of her sons. Lehi comforted her, not by promising that they would not face difficulties in their journeys, but by pointing out that those who stayed in Jerusalem would perish. Then he bore testimony that God would deliver his sons “out of the hands of Laban. (1 Ne. 5:5.)
It takes great faith to trust not only the Lord, but also those through whom he speaks. Most of us are not prophets but are called upon to recognize the prophets and their messages from God. Sariah bore strong testimony of Lehi’s calling after her sons’ return: “Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness [note that she fled with him before her knowledge was sure]; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them.” (1 Ne. 5:8.)
The Book of Mormon tells of the rise and fall of a series of civilizations in which war was frequently the means of political change. Women were not listed among the strategists and are not usually compelled to fight. Though women may not have gone into battle, they may have used other strengths to accomplish similar objectives.
The daughter of Jared used her beauty and charm to evil purpose, specifically to help her father gain the kingdom of her grandfather. Jared’s daughter is described as “exceedingly expert” (Ether 8:8); her plan involved no armies, but was quite effective in bringing destruction to many.
Jared’s failed rebellion against his father had discouraged him. His daughter noticed his sorrow and may have seen an opportunity to increase her own power. She did not console him by reminding him that he was lucky to escape with his life; nor did she point out that waging war against one’s own father may bring doom rather than glory. She knew that he loved kingdoms and power more than he loved his family, and she offered to sell herself to an assassin in order to “restore” the kingdom to her father.
Jared was quite willing to use his daughter as bait for Akish, a friend of Jared’s father, Omer. (See Ether 8:7–12.) Her success in enticing Akish led to the downfall not only of her grandfather and father, but to the destruction of her people. In preparing Jared’s daughter’s dowry—the severed head of her grandfather the king—Akish restored the practice of secret combinations and blood oaths. Here, beauty and skillful manipulation of others brought death and evil. (See Ether 8, Ether 9.)
These accounts of women in the Book of Mormon teach us that a person’s standing in the community, high office, or great wealth bear little relationship to her faith, gospel knowledge, or ability to serve the Lord. From these women we learn that without faith in the Lord and his teachings, the mighty and the ordinary are barred from the light and understanding of the gospel.
With faith and knowledge of the gospel, all of us can serve God; and by so doing, we can more fully recognize and respond to the truth.