Summary: The story of Abinadi is a familiar one to all Latter-day Saints that relates an event that took place thousands of years ago among a people who lived under the rule of King Noah concerning a prophet of God named Abinadi and his message of repentance and salvation. Although this story is told in a dramatic way, and provides the reader with an understanding of God’s plan of our salvation, there are those who claim that this event never took place except in the imaginative mind of Joseph Smith. This article relates the story of Abinadi’s message and examines it in light of Joseph’s ability to invent it.
In the Book of Mormon we read of a king named Noah who was vain, greedy, and “wicked.” When he came to power after the death of his father, Zeniff, “he put down all the priests that had been consecrated by his father, and consecrated new ones in their stead, such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts… [and] were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity.” More than this, they taught, or allowed, their people to commit similar acts of unrighteousness. (Mosiah 11:5-7). In this way, the people of Noah themselves became wicked.
In time, there came a man among them named Abinadi who began to preach that unless they repented of their ways and turned to the Lord their God, he would “deliver them into the hands of their enemies; yea, and they shall be brought into bondage” (Mosiah 11:21). However, instead of heeding his message, the people of King Noah sought to take his life, and so Abinadi fled their city.
However, two years later Abinadi came back among the people of Noah and began delivering the same message he had before, but this time he was seized and brought before the king saying that “Behold, we have brought a man before thee who has prophesied evil concerning thy people, and saith that God will destroy them… [but] O king, behold, we are guiltless, and thou, O king, hast not sinned; therefore, this man has lied… Behold, we deliver him into thy hands; thou mayest do with him as seemeth thee good ” (Mosiah 12:9,14,16).
Noah ordered that Abinadi should be bound and cast into prison while he took counsel with his priests as to what should be done with this man. The priests “said unto the king: Bring him hither that we may question him; and the king commanded that he should be brought before them” (Mosiah 12:18). The intent of the priests was to ask Abinadi questions that were deliberately designed to entrap him in his words so they could find a reason to accuse him of being a liar.
Using the scriptures, they quoted the words of Isaiah which say “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings; that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good; that publisheth salvation” (Isaiah 52:7) and asked Abinadi what these words meant.
What this scripture is saying is how beautiful someone is who brings people tidings of good news and who proclaims their salvation. What the priests were attempting to do by asking this question was show how Abinadi was doing just the opposite by speaking evil against the people, and instead of proclaiming salvation, he was prophesying their destruction. Their intent was to show that Abinadi was violating these words of scripture and was therefore a false prophet of God.
However, Abinadi was not intimidated by them, and nor was he going to let himself fall into their cleverly designed trap. Therefore, before answering their question, he turned the tables on them, asking, “what teach ye this people? And they said: We teach the law of Moses. And again he said unto them: If ye teach the law of Moses why do ye not keep it?” (Mosiah 12:27-29).
Abinadi then proceeded to quote all the ten commandments from the scriptures, including “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, [and] thou shalt not steal” all of which were things that Noah and his priests were doing, and then asked the priests “Have ye taught this people that they should do all these things? I say unto you, Nay, ye have not” (Mosiah 12:37). Now it was the priests who stood accused of not following the words of God.
At this point King Noah became furious and demanded that Abinadi be put to death, but Abinadi boldly declared “Touch me not, for God shall smite you if ye lay your hands upon me, for I have not delivered the message which the Lord sent me to deliver; [and] neither have I told you that which ye requested that I should tell” (Mosiah 13:3).
Then Abinadi began to answer the question that had been put to him, but instead of answering it directly, he first gave the background for the scripture they had quoted from Isaiah. He started by saying that the law of Moses cannot bring salvation because it cannot take away our sins. Instead, the law of Moses with its performances and ordinances were a type or shadow of things to come (Mosiah 13:30,31).
Abinadi explained, “For behold, did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people? Yea, and even all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began—have they not spoken more or less concerning these things? Have they not said that God himself should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man, and go forth in mighty power upon the face of the earth? Yea, and have they not said also that he should bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, and that he, himself, should be oppressed and afflicted?” (Mosiah 13:33-35).
What Abinadi was attempting to show was that all the prophets from the beginning of time have testified, to one degree or another, some with more clarity than others, concerning the coming of a Messiah who would take away our sins. He then quoted the 53rd chapter of Isaiah which prophecies about the ministry of Jesus Christ, how he would not look any different than any other man, that he would be despised, be acquainted with sorrow and grief, that he would be “wounded for our transgressions, [and] was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed,” how he would be “oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb so he opened not his mouth,” how “he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death,” and that he made “his soul an offering for sin.” Abinadi went on to explain how this Messiah “shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. And thus God breaketh the bands of death” (Mosiah 15:7,8).
He then went on to talk about the resurrection and how the Messiah would gain the victory over death, and that “all those that have kept the commandments of God shall come forth in the first resurrection… to dwell with God who has redeemed them; thus they have eternal life” (Mosiah 15:22.23).
Abinadi explained that all the holy prophets who have ever prophesied had done so concerning the coming of the Lord (Mosiah 15:11), and then said, “these are they who have published peace, who have brought good tidings of good, who have published salvation; and said unto Zion: Thy God reigneth! And O how beautiful upon the mountains were their feet!” (Mosiah 15:14-15, italics added).
But Abinadi didn’t stop there. He went on to explain that those who publish or spread this good news of salvation, who bring forth the good tidings about the founder of peace, who is the Lord who has redeemed his people and has granted unto them salvation, that their feet are also beautiful (Mosiah 15:17-18).
However, he told King Noah and his priests, “Ye ought to tremble; for the Lord redeemeth none such that rebel against him and die in their sins; yea, even all those… that have wilfully rebelled against God, that have known the commandments of God, and would not keep them… For salvation cometh to none such; for the Lord hath redeemed none such; yea, neither can the Lord redeem such,… for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim” (Mosiah 15:26-27).
Abinadi then continued to expound upon the fate of those who go “according to their own carnal wills and desires; having never called upon the Lord while the arms of mercy were extended towards them,” (Mosiah 16:12) and then he concluded his message by saying, “Remember that only in and through Christ ye can be saved. Therefore, if ye teach the law of Moses, also teach that it is a shadow of those things which are to come” (Mosiah 16:13,14).
This sermon by Abinadi covers six chapters in the Book of Mormon and rather than it being a rambling, long-winded sermon that wanders all over the place, it is at first a great discourse, clearly setting forth the doctrine of salvation, but more than this, Abinadi is masterful in the way he handles his critics. His logic, reasoning, knowledge of the scriptures, and defense of his words are on a par with the way Jesus handled those who tried to entrap him with their questions. Abinadi’s answer is so complete that it leaves the priests of Noah with no ability to argue back, while at the same time calling them to repentance, which was what he was called to do.
What makes this story so significant is that the critics of the Book of Mormon claim that what Joseph Smith wrote is just a work of fiction that he completely made up as he went along. If that is true, then this story of Abinadi is a work of fiction. But for that to be the case, then the critics are faced with a serious dilemma.
It is an established fact that the Book of Mormon was ready for publication by June, 1829, when Joseph Smith was merely twenty-three years old. Furthermore, it is well recognized that Palmyra, NY, the area where Joseph grew up, and Harmony, PA, where the Book of Mormon was written, were both small farming communities far from the large cities with their great institutions of learning. In addition to this, there is no evidence that Joseph had more than a rudimentary education.
Yet, if we are to believe his critics, Joseph had such a brilliant imagination that he could invent a story that combines a detailed, coherent, and compelling discourse on religious theology, salvation, and the resurrection, with a comprehensive knowledge of the Old and New Testament, along with a clear understanding of the principles of debating with its use of logic, reasoning, and counter arguments. But if that is true, the critics are at a loss to explain how or where Joseph gained all of this learning at such a young age.
One explanation offered is that Joseph heard a preacher give a similar sermon one time and then adapted it when writing the story of Abinadi, however it’s hard to imagine how such a sermon could have been told over the pulpit when trying to illustrate a Christian principle. The critics could say that perhaps Joseph combined what he heard from a number of different sermons, but that would require him to possess a great memory and exercise even a greater imagination in order to piece together those sermons into one fanciful story.
However, there is a glaring problem with that explanation. It is true that when Joseph was growing up there was “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion” in his area and that his family attended many different churches in an effort to determine which denomination they wanted to join. But, when Joseph was fourteen years old, he went to a secluded spot on his father’s farm to ask God which church he should join and claims that the Father and the Son appeared to him and said that none of the churches taught the truth.
According to him, that vision was so real and so powerful that he knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Christ’s true church was not on the earth at that time. Therefore, there was no more reason for him to keep attending any church services in order to hear what ministers were preaching.
In addition to that, when young Joseph did talk with ministers he knew and told them what he had experienced, they didn’t just disbelieve him, they mocked the idea of God appearing to men and told him that such things were of the devil. Since Joseph knew, with absolute certainty, that he had seen God and, more importantly, that God knew it, there is no reason why Joseph would keep going to church.
It wasn’t long after his first vision that Joseph learned that there were some gold plates buried in a nearby hill, and as the word of this began to filter out to others in his community, a concerted effort was made to wrest these plates from Joseph’s possession.
The area in and around the town of Palmyra consisted mostly of rural people whose annual income was meager, therefore, the idea of getting their hands on gold was something many people there strongly desired, because it would have made them extremely wealthy almost overnight. As a result, Joseph kept to himself as much as possible, and that included not attending church where he would have been constantly pestered about his gold plates or mocked for the vision he said he had. Therefore, if Joseph had made up the story of Abinadi from a sermon, or even a series of sermons he heard, they would have to have been told before his fifteen birthday because, in all likelihood, Joseph hadn’t listen to any sermons for nine years prior to writing the Book of Mormon.
But there is another reason why Joseph couldn’t have used a sermon he once heard as the basis for his story about Abinadi, which is that what Abinadi said is not in keeping with what was being taught by the ministers of that day, or even today. For example, nearly all Christian churches teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all one, but Joseph taught that they are two separate beings, and that doctrine is found throughout the Book of Mormon. Most Christian churches don’t teach about the resurrection as being part of the plan of salvation, but Abinadi does. Nearly all Protestant churches teach that we are saved by grace alone and not by works, yet Abinadi taught that only those who keep the commandments of God and don’t rebel against him will gain eternal life.
Also, most churches today, and certainly the ones in Joseph Smith’s days, didn’t believe that all the prophets in the Old Testament prophesied about Christ, yet today we are finding more and more evidence that this was the case. In fact, Jesus himself said so (Luke 24:25-27) and the apostle Paul indicated the same in some of his letters (2 Timothy 3:15).
Other critics have theorized that someone else came up with the ideas for the stories found in the Book of Mormon. The most likely candidate for this is Oliver Cowdrey, who served as Joseph’s primary scribe as Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon. It is said that Oliver was a school teacher and therefore had the education to invent such stories, or that he provided Joseph with the technical information that helped make Joseph’s fictional stories sound more believable.
There are two problems with this scenario. The first is that school teachers back then often didn’t have a college education, especially the itinerant teachers, such as Oliver. Those who had a good college degree didn’t go to rural areas to make a living. Instead, they went to the larger, metropolitan cities where their knowledge could provide them with a higher wage. Most rural teachers only had a slightly more advanced level of education than the people they taught and only gave lessons on the basics of reading, writing, and simple mathematics.
The second problem is that if Oliver and Joseph had worked together to invent the stories found in the Book of Mormon then it is certain that Oliver would have wanted to share in the profits from the sale of the book. Instead, Joseph didn’t make near enough money to even pay the publisher, let alone make a profit. If money was the motive for Oliver helping Joseph write a fictional novel, then he would have left him as soon as he realized there was no money to be made.
Instead, Oliver stayed with Joseph and became a staunch supporter of his. But then, several years later, Oliver became disaffect with Joseph and left the church. If he had been part of a hoax, this would have been the time when Oliver would have exposed Joseph and the Book of Mormon as a fraud, but, to his dying day, he never did.
Whenever we examine the claims the critics make against the Book of Mormon what we find, time and time again, is that, rather than exposing Joseph as a fraud, it is their words that fail to stand up to scrutiny, and we see that yet again in the story of Abinadi.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Mormonism