Attitudes prevalent in the West about religious freedom, especially freedom of worship and freedom to teach religion openly, portend danger to those who hope to continue both to live and to teach religious truths at home, at Church, and in the public square. The Twenty-third chapter of the Book of Alma has much to teach us about both the blessings and the limitations of religious freedom under the law.
Alma's account of the Lamanite mission of the sons of Mosiah, the Nephite king, contemplates the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ to "a wild and a ferocious people," "a people who did delight in bloodshed." The resultant "success," to borrow Alma's own language, suggests that anything is possible in our world, when Christians share truth with love. "Let your light so shine."
The story opens with drama and miracle; yet Alma insists on our grasping a broader view of the work of teaching and conversion. It is not enough to focus on the stunning accounts of Ammon in the court of Lamoni nor those of Aaron in the court of the old king, Lamoni's father. Here, we read of wonders, of trances, of visions, a dramatic beginning to the story of the Lamanite conversion. Even so, the sons of Mosiah spent 14 years in the mission field, and we suppose that each year was as necessary as the last--or as the momentous first year.
It was after the shake-up at the palace-centers that the enduring work of teaching the Gospel began. The visions, while providing preliminary gospel instruction and blessings to a few, only opened the door for teaching so many more and also so much more deeply: "Now, as Ammon was thus teaching the people of Lamoni continually (Alma 22:1). Note, too, how Ammon convinced Lamoni's father to grant Lamoni full autonomy over his own kingdom before teaching the father, the "old king," himself. Ammon needed time and scope and freedom--religious freedom--or he could not have gone a step further.
We still have to identify the end of the beginning, the act that closes Scene One of the Lamanite mission. Tellingly, that act is not the miraculous conversion of Lamoni's father and household, in the central palace, but his subsequent proclamation and decree of "free access" for the sons of Mosiah as they began a fourteen-year work of teaching throughout the length and breadth of the realm.
Alma 23 allows us to understand that without a firm decree of religious freedom, not only to practice but fervently to publish and to establish, the entire Lamanite mission would have hit a dead end. It is the decree of "free access" that truly and surely and permanently opened the floodgates to the success of "Ammon and his brethren"; no wonder the conversion of kings and princes, at mission's beginning, provides the crucial key to success.
(The reader will wish to compare the proclamation in Alma 23 with that of Nephite King Mosiah in Mosiah 27. Each of these proclamations appeared in differing circumstances, and they differ in focus and expression, but each had as aim a royal defense of religious freedom, and each worked for the salvation of souls.)
Alma goes to great pains to describe the comprehensive, no loopholes nature of the Lamanite royal proclamation, which was not only decreed at the palace but also "sent" "throughout the land." Why did I miss the full import of these verses in earlier readings? I lacked Erlebnis: I had never before lived in the second decade of the 21st century, a moment of challenge to the enshrined freedom to teach religious truth, with frankness and boldness--even with blessed, loving rebuke--in the public square.
"Behold, now it came to pass that the king of the Lamanites sent a proclamation among all his people, that they should not lay their hands on [those] who should go forth preaching the word of God, in whatsoever place they should be, in any part of their land." Whatsoever and any! "Yea, he sent a decree among them, that they should not lay their hands on them to bind them, or to cast them into prison; neither should they spit upon them, nor smite them, nor cast them out of their synagogues, nor scourge them; neither should they cast stones at them, but that they should have free access to their houses, and also their temples, and their sanctuaries. And thus they might go forth and preach the word according to their desires."
Today's missionaries increasingly have limited access to condominiums, apartments, gated neighborhoods, and the like--on the other hand, new technologies now augment free access.
Contemplate the all-embracing nature of the royal decree. Free access, here, has all the force and protection of a royal embassy. The sons of Mosiah were to be held sacrosanct, as if enjoying the privileges of the king himself. Never in all the annals of missionary endeavor in the Latter-days do missionaries enjoy like immunity, along with such permissions, access, or allowances. Free access is the telling phrase here; for without such scope, as contemplated in the royal decree, the fourteen-year labor of converting seven cities and lands of the Lamanites would never have met with "success."
Even so, we can never pin the Book of Mormon down to a single formula: "the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people" (Alma 24:27). When Nephi and Lehi, a century later, preached to the Lamanites, they enjoyed no royal proclamation. Yet so great was the power of their words and the accompanying manifestations of the Holy Ghost that, ultimately, nothing could withstand the truth, and a nation of converts was born in a day "because of the greatness of the evidences" (Helaman 5:50).
Despite their success with the converted Seven, much of the kingdom, though all but required to hear them, stolidly rejected the sons of Mosiah. And Hugh Nibley keenly notes how the sweeping grant of "free access" recklessly bordered on royal prerogative: "I mean he practically transfers the kingdom over to the missionaries and lets them do what they want. A lot of people resent it, and they stage a revolution" (Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 2: 401). One of the purposes of the Book of Mormon, Moroni tells us, is to reveal for our own instruction something of the weaknesses inherent in the character of the Lehites, high among which, says Joseph Smith, is that of being overzealous. Yet without the access so provided and decreed, it may be doubted that even a single city would have been "converted unto the Lord" in the fullness of the meaning of the phrase. Besides, there are the surprises.
The royal aim was "that the word of God might have no obstruction," and the "old king" surely foresaw all contingencies: the Amalekites and Amulonites, Nephite dissenters who lived in Lamanite lands, might block access to their own sanctuaries; they and others might spit, smite, and bind. Note how the decree does not touch on the intellectual rights of the hearers: they might freely choose to reject, disbelieve, even mock. But they had to hear the message, or let it be heard by any and all who might be willing, in a moment of free access. And--here's the surprise--the record does note how many who had initially rejected the message and thereafter fervently sought the destruction of the converted community--the Anti-Nephi-Lehies--did later, in the very teeth of struggle and bloodshed, remember, with stinging conviction, the words once taught them. It was not too late for them: they, too, "were converted unto the Lord." And to today's terrorists--en garde! With love irresistible, God may be seeking even you: for "we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people" (Alma 24:27). He will find His people, though He turn the earth over in unrelenting pursuit.
"I fled him, down the Nights and down the
I fled him, down the arches of the Years;"
"Ah, Fondest, Blindest, Weakest,
I am He Whom thou Seekest!"
(from Francis Thompson, "Hound of Heaven")
So prophesies the stunning Book of Mormon! And so--speaking in that same Spirit--"we can plainly discern" like transformations in days not long delayed in which He will also verify his word unto us "in every particular" (see Alma 24:30; 25:17; and also Elder Bruce R. McConkie, "The Coming Tests and Trials and Glory," in Conference Report, April 1980).
Alma 23 also lends further insight into the stupendous work of preaching the gospel to the dead: free access brings the mighty harvest.
"Thus we see" that the proclamation of Alma 23, with its sweeping terms and allowances, including full allowance of religious speech and proselytizing in every public place, without let whatsoever, became necessary for the full measure of missionary success.
And, in that light, notice how everything, despite hardships, labors, and miracles, remains merely a beginning: "And thus they began to have great success. And thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord, yea, thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites; and they were taught the records and prophecies which were handed down even to the present time." Even so, among the recalcitrant revolutionaries, when once deeply stung by the recollected Word: "there were more than a thousand brought to the knowledge of the truth" (Alma 24:27).
And note again the idea of "teaching continually," that is, teaching thoroughly and deeply. Here was no brisk announcement of gospel truth, but a full-blown program of replacing all prior tradition, as passed from father to son, with an entirely unknown tradition, though record based, and stretching over hundreds of years. By the end of the fourteen years, those "converted unto the Lord" had "searched the scriptures" as diligently, as completely, and as comprehensively and comprehendingly, as ever had Himni or Omner or Muloki. Clearly free access contemplated no brief stops in sanctuaries and houses, but a continuation of teaching until the task reached all desired ends. Not until the Millennial dawn can Latter-day Saints imagine enjoying such free access in converting the world to Christ.
Although grateful for the provisions of the Bill of Rights and other world documents that guarantee freedom to publish the Word, we realize that such privileges and protections do not obtain in many parts of Africa, Asia, or the Middle East. There remain many places where No access obstructs the Word. For now, we glory in any and all access enjoyed throughout the Americas, Europe, and large swaths of Asia and Africa--yet even the boasted Bill of Rights, wise and inspired though it be, carries but little of the sweeping power of the Lamanite royal proclamation. "Oh, that I were an angel!" cries Alma. And well may we cry: Oh, that I and we enjoyed the privileges of free access, including the freedom of preaching without any let or harassment whatsoever, as once enjoyed by special sons of Mosiah for a fourteen-year period, in a little "hemmed-in" land, a century before the coming of Christ.
But, to borrow Alma's wording, we are men and do sin in our wish. And do we not often ask for what we ought not? As splendidly sweeping as free access sounds, the freedoms of speech and religious expression granted by our own Bill of Rights, even with all the limitations on carefree access inherent therein, will better serve God's purposes. Balance, respect, public safety, choice, and an openness to thoughtful judicial interpretation: therein lies the safe path. As the Ancient Egyptians would say of justice and order: "Follow Ma'at, but do not exaggerate" (quoted in Erik Hornung, Idea into Image).
Let us fervently rejoice over what religious freedoms we do now enjoy, under the strictures of the First Amendment, and let us protect, preserve, and defend those sacred freedoms forever. Even in that millennial day, when truth, as prophesied, will fill the earth, the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ will lend itself to both the spirit and the wording of our own treasured Bill of Rights.