Christ’s Church in Ancient America

“Christ’s Church in Ancient America,” Ensign, Mar. 2000, 48

The Book of Mormon

Christ’s Church in Ancient America

The Church of Jesus Christ experienced three phases in Book of Mormon times: the Old Testament-era Church among the early Nephites, the revitalization of the Church in Alma’s time, and the Church organized by the risen Lord.

The Church of Jesus Christ has been established in every gospel dispensation from the days of Adam to the present dispensation of the fulness of times. In its totality it includes all who have been called out of the world into the kingdom of God. Whenever organized, it has been through virtue of the same keys and powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood and has proclaimed the same gospel principles and administered the same saving ordinances. However, its organizational structure has varied from time to time. For example, the unique calling of Apostle—a special witness of the risen Christ—was introduced by Jesus Himself (see Luke 6:13; 3 Ne. 12:1–2; D&C 107:23).

The word church has various connotations. It may refer to a given religion, denomination, congregation, place of worship, or simply an assembly of persons—as it is first used in the Book of Mormon in connection with the “elders of the Jews” in Jerusalem (see 1 Ne. 4:22–26). Spiritually and broadly speaking, it applies to the opposing powers of good and evil in the world: Nephi was shown that in the latter days there would be “save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil” (1 Ne. 14:10; compare 1 Ne. 22:22–23). In most instances in the Book of Mormon, the word church refers to the true church of God or Christ. False or apostate churches are clearly identified as such (see 1 Ne. 13:4–5; 2 Ne. 28:3–19).

Although Moroni’s abridgment of Ether’s record provides an account of the unprecedented appearance of Christ to the brother of Jared (see Ether 3:14–16) and repeatedly tells of prophets among them, it contains no specific reference to a church among the Jaredites.

Establishing the Church in Nephi’s Time

Following the death of Lehi, Nephi led his family and supporters away from his faithless brothers to a place called thereafter the land of Nephi. His followers became “the people of Nephi” (2 Ne. 5:9). We first learn about the Church of Christ in the Book of Mormon among these early Nephites.

Nephi’s people observed “the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses” (2 Ne. 5:10). This lesser law was binding upon the house of Israel until the Savior’s death (see 2 Ne. 25:30; 3 Ne. 1:19, 24; 3 Ne. 15:2–5). To perform its rituals and sacrifices, Nephi built a temple patterned after that of Solomon, which was still in existence at Nephi’s departure from Jerusalem (see 2 Ne. 5:16). Since the tribe of Levi was not represented in Lehi’s colony, their historic temple duties were performed under the authority of “the holy order of God”—the Melchizedek Priesthood (see Alma 4:20; Alma 13:1, 7, 14). Unlike Nephi, Jacob makes specific mention of his ordination to the “holy order” (2 Ne. 6:2). Nephi tells us only of consecrating his brothers Jacob and Joseph “priests and teachers over the land of my people” (2 Ne. 5:26).

Thus a theocracy was established wherein Nephi served both as spiritual leader and king, the first in a line of kings who bore his name (see 2 Ne. 5:18; 2 Ne. 6:2; Jacob 1:9–11; Mosiah 25:13). The political, family-related dynasty continued for nearly 500 years until 91 B.C., when it was replaced with a system of governors and judges (see Mosiah 29:41–47).

Although Nephi makes no explicit reference to the Church of Christ, its existence is clearly implied. He writes, “The law [of Moses] hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith” (2 Ne. 25:25). That “faith”—the fulness of the gospel—is summarized by him in plainness and power in one of the three most concise summaries in all scripture (see 2 Ne. 31–32; compare 3 Ne. 27:13–22; Moses 6:47–68). Concluding this summary, he states, “And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people” (2 Ne. 33:1; emphasis added). And Jacob, a fellow witness, adds: “We labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God” (Jacob 1:7; compare Jacob 4:4–6). After Nephi and Jacob, came priests, teachers, and “exceedingly many prophets” who carried on this labor (see Enos 1:22). Jarom, Jacob’s grandson, tells of diligently teaching the law of Moses along with faith in the future Messiah “as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11; compare Omni 1:26).

In Nephi’s lifetime the people “lived after the manner of happiness” (2 Ne. 5:27). But in Jacob’s time, wars and contentions took their toll—so much so that by the third century B.C. both the church and the Nephite nation as they were then organized came to an end. Earlier, Jacob had prophesied, “Except ye repent, … the Lord God will lead away the righteous out from among you” (Jacob 3:4; compare Enos 1:23; Jarom 1:3, 10). This happened when the first king named Mosiah led an exodus of “as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord” from the land of Nephi northward to the land of Zarahemla, where they united with the people of Zarahemla (see Omni 1:12–14; see also Jacob 3:4).

These Zarahemla descendants of exiles from Jerusalem, who left at the time of its destruction, spoke a corrupted language, had no scriptures, and did not believe in God (see Omni 1:15–18; Hel. 8:21). Consequently, it was necessary to school them in the lesser law of Moses and the “preparatory gospel” before they were spiritually ready to receive the higher law of Christ. The preparatory gospel is the lesser law of Moses combined with a portion, not a fulness, of the greater gospel law. It is “the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments” (D&C 84:27).

The level of unity and righteousness among Mosiah’s people after arriving in Zarahemla fluctuated, especially in the days of his son Benjamin, when there was considerable spiritual turmoil (see W of M 1:15–18). Consequently, the preparatory gospel appears to have had primary emphasis during the reigns of these kings.

Of itself, the Mosaic law had no saving power; it was a discipline designed to bring ancient Israel to Christ (see Mosiah 3:14–15; Mosiah 13:27–28; Gal. 3:24). However, eventually and because “they have been a diligent people in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (Mosiah 1:11), many of King Benjamin’s subjects became spiritually eligible for the higher blessings associated with the Melchizedek Priesthood and the fulness of the gospel. His last major address to his assembled people was to that end.

King Benjamin quoted the moving message of an angel concerning the ministry, Atonement, and Resurrection of the “Lord Omnipotent,” and of mankind’s imperative need to repent and receive Him (see Mosiah 3). This united people of a reconstituted nation responded with fervency, crying out for “the atoning blood of Christ” that they might receive mercy and forgiveness. Wrought upon by the Spirit, they experienced a remission of their sins and that “peace of conscience” which the Holy Ghost bestows (see Mosiah 4:2–3, 11; Mosiah 5:2). Having entered into an oath, a binding covenant, with Christ, they were “born of him” and received a new name: “the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7; compare Mosiah 1:11–12). They were promised that one day they would stand “at the right hand of God” (Mosiah 5:9–10).

Revitalizing the Church in Alma’s Time

For spiritual leadership, the people turned to Alma, who had been a priest of King Noah and a convert of the martyred prophet Abinadi (see Mosiah 17). After secretly preaching Abinadi’s message, Alma had been forced to flee to the waters of Mormon, where he, “having authority from the Almighty God,” initially baptized 204 souls and ordained several priests (see Mosiah 18:13, 16–18). “And they were called the church of God, or the church of Christ, from that time forward” (Mosiah 18:17; compare 3 Ne. 5:12). This is the first explicit reference to an organized church in the Book of Mormon. Alma was its presiding high priest, but like Nephi his ordination to the “holy order” is not recorded (see Mosiah 23:16; see heading to Alma 1; see also Alma 4:18).

Upon arriving in Zarahemla in 121 B.C., Alma was authorized by King Mosiah to form branches of the Church throughout that land (see Mosiah 25:19–22). In doing so he became, for all the united people, “the founder of their church” (Mosiah 29:47). In 91 B.C., the year of his death, Alma conferred the office of high priest upon his son, Alma, and gave him “charge concerning all the affairs of the church” (Mosiah 29:42; compare Alma 4:4). Thereafter, the office of elder is mentioned for the first time (see Alma 4:7; Alma 6:1).

During this period, the first recorded Lamanite conversions, numbering in the thousands, resulted from the 14-year mission (91–77 B.C.) of the four sons of Mosiah and their companions (see Alma 17–26). Thereafter, in an astonishing reversal of roles, Lamanites such as the great prophet Samuel became missionaries to the Nephites (see Hel. 6:4–6; Hel. 13–16:8).

Thus, the Church of Christ experienced sunshine and shadow. There were periods of great faith, peace, and prosperity when the Spirit of the Lord was poured out upon the people. For example, in 42 B.C. the Church in Zarahemla was inundated with such great blessings that “even the high priests and the teachers were themselves astonished beyond measure” (Hel. 3:25). But three years before Jesus’ death, a time of social inequality and material prosperity, “Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world” (3 Ne. 6:15).

Consequently, while their prophet-leaders were stalwart, many in the general membership proved unstable, alternating between fervent faith and arrogant indifference—a fact which provoked Mormon’s great lamentation (see Hel. 12:1–7). This state of affairs continued until the devastating destructions that accompanied Jesus’ Crucifixion swept all but the “more righteous” away (see 3 Ne. 10:12). These were the ones who remained to behold the risen Redeemer when He ministered to His “other sheep” in America (see 3 Ne. 15:17, 21).

The Church Established by the Risen Lord

The church established by Alma more than 150 years earlier prepared the way for the ministry of the risen Christ—the magnificent culmination of all that had gone before. It began with the Father’s witness as the Savior descended to the temple in Bountiful: “Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him” (3 Ne. 11:7).

As the resurrected Savior stood among them, the multitude of 2,500 people did “see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come” (3 Ne. 11:15; emphasis added; compare 3 Ne. 18:25). With “one accord” they shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God!” (3 Ne. 11:16–17).

Jesus then ordained 12 disciples to preside over His Church and to baptize all those who believed in Him and fully repented. They alone would be saved and inherit the kingdom of God (see 3 Ne. 11:33–34). To emphasize this vital doctrine, Jesus restated it two times, adding, “Ye must repent … , and become as a little child” (3 Ne. 11:38). To become cleansed of all sin, the multitude was promised the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost (see 3 Ne. 9:20; 3 Ne. 11:35; 3 Ne. 12:1–2). The following day, the 12 disciples received this baptism. They were purified, becoming “as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus” (3 Ne. 19:25; see also 3 Ne. 19:13, 28–29). This was in fulfillment of prophecy (see 1 Ne. 12:7–10). Thereafter, “as many as were baptized in the name of Jesus were filled with the Holy Ghost. And many of them saw and heard unspeakable things, which are not lawful to be written” (3 Ne. 26:17–18). They too were called “the church of Christ” (3 Ne. 26:21; compare 3 Ne. 27:2–12).

In Christ’s Church there were to be “no disputations” over points of doctrine (3 Ne. 18:34). The Savior said: “I will declare unto you my doctrine. … And it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me” (3 Ne. 11:31–32; compare 4 Ne. 1:2). The perfect unity of the three individual members of the Godhead was the divine pattern for the unity which was to characterize the Church (see 3 Ne. 11:32, 36).

Moses’ law, with its burdensome demands and blood sacrifice, had “passed away”—the “schoolmaster” was needed no longer (see 3 Ne. 15:3–5; Gal. 3:24). Yet the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit remained and was reemphasized (see 3 Ne. 12:19; compare 2 Ne. 2:7).

Having instituted the sacrament in His Church at Jerusalem, Jesus now introduced it in His Church in America (see 3 Ne. 18:1–12, 28–32; 3 Ne. 20:2–9; 3 Ne. 26:13). Partaken of in remembrance of His atoning sacrifice, it was both a renewal of covenants made and a pledge of obedience, “that they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (Moro. 4:3).

Jesus restated the great and fundamental doctrines of the Sermon on the Mount (see 3 Ne. 12–14), taught of prayer (see 3 Ne. 18:15–21), defined the gospel (see 3 Ne. 27:13–22), prophesied of the gathering of Israel and the Gentiles and of the latter-day New Jerusalem (see 3 Ne. 16; 3 Ne. 20:11–23), and provided scripture that they did not have (see 3 Ne. 24–25). Indeed, “he did expound all things unto them, both great and small” from the very beginning to the Final Judgment (see 3 Ne. 26:1–4). Subsequently, the visions of the brother of Jared were also made public (see Ether 3:21; Ether 4:1–4).

The Redeemer’s ministry to the Nephites was filled with glory: the sick and afflicted were healed, angels descended to the little children and “even babes” spoke “marvelous things,” Jesus offered prayers to the Father which “cannot be written,” and more. The multitude was literally overcome with joy (see 3 Ne. 17:5–25). Their greater faith made possible greater works from Jesus than He had performed among the Jews (see 3 Ne. 19:35).

Nevertheless, East and West had become bound together. “Our Savior,” wrote the Prophet Joseph Smith, “planted the Gospel here [in America] in all its fulness, and richness, and power, and blessing; … they had Apostles [or Disciples], Prophets, Pastors, Teachers, and Evangelists; the same order, the same priesthood, the same ordinances, gifts, powers, and blessings, as were enjoyed on the eastern continent” (History of the Church, 4:538).

Within two years “the people were all converted,” and branches were established in every land (see 4 Ne. 1:2). They were no longer Nephites and Lamanites, “nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Ne. 1:17). Materially, the Church had “all things common among them” (see 3 Ne. 26:19; 4 Ne. 1:3). Spiritually, they were “partakers of the heavenly gift”—eternal life (see 4 Ne. 1:3; Ether 12:8–9). Mormon writes, “Surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (4 Ne. 1:16).

For more than a century and a half, this Church of Jesus Christ experienced a Zionlike state never known before or since in Israel. But sadly, as the Lord had foretold, in the “fourth generation” Church members began an almost steady decline into sin and apostasy (see 3 Ne. 27:32; compare 1 Ne. 12:11–12). In A.D. 360, the Lord told Mormon, “Cry unto this people—Repent ye, and come unto me, and be ye baptized, and build up again my church, and ye shall be spared” (Morm. 3:2; emphasis added). Mormon did so, but to no avail.

A heavenly season of righteousness, unity, and joy had blessed the lives of three generations of Lehi’s children. But in the passage of time, a long night of spiritual darkness descended upon the Western Hemisphere. Dawn would not break again for 1,400 years. Its coming would bring another revelation of God, another gospel dispensation, the Church of Jesus Christ anew—the last, the most enduring, the most glorious of all!

  • Rodney Turner is an emeritus professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Three Nephites, by Gary L. Kapp

The Nephites Seeking a New Home, by C. C. A. Christensen, courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art

Alma Baptizing in the Waters of Mormon, by Arnold Friberg

“That Ye Do Always Remember Me,” by Gary L. Kapp, courtesy of David Larsen