Thursday, October 7, 2010

Limhi, Ammon, and Priesthood Keys

I recently read the Book of Mormon account in which Ammon (the first one, not the arm-chopper) encounters the people of King Limhi and the descendants of Zeniff after an extensive bit of wandering in the wilderness. After all that Limhi and his people have been through, they are ready to forsake the sins introduced (or at least promoted) by King Noah and to enter the waters of baptism:

"And now since the coming of Ammon, king Limhi had also entered into a covenant with God, and also many of his people, to serve him and keep his commandments. And it came to pass that king Limhi and many of his people were desirous to be baptized; but there was none in the land that had authority from God. And Ammon declined doing this thing, considering himself an unworthy servant." (Mosiah 21:32-33)

These verses always troubled me. Ammon clearly has the priesthood--why doesn't he just baptize them? I've generally been content to assume that Ammon was not personally worthy and neither were any of the other men who came with him. But I've recently changed my opinion; I think Ammon both had the necessary priesthood power and was worthy to use it. So why didn't he? I believe that it is because Ammon, whose grasp of priesthood roles and functions was so great that his instruction that "a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have" (8:16) is still the definitive statement on the subject, understood the need for priesthood keys.

There's no doubt in my mind that Ammon possessed the priesthood necessary to baptize Limhi and his people--but it seems less likely that he had the authority (which the text itself indicates) to preside at such an event. The Church Handbook of Instructions directs that baptisms must be performed "[u]nder the direction of the presiding authority," and in a place where there was no established church, that authority probably reverted back to King Mosiah, who was the head of the church in Zarahemla and thus held the relevant priesthood keys.

And speaking of priesthood keys, I loved the clarity of these principles from Robert J. Matthews of BYU's Ancient Scripture department:

  1. It is evident that a person who holds the keys can 'give' them to another without losing them himself.
  2. There is a difference between holding the keys sufficiently to function and being the person designated to convey those keys to others. Both Moses and Elijah gave keys to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, yet it was still Moses and Elijah who brought them to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1836. No doubt Peter had sufficient of 'Elijah's keys' to operate the Church during the meridian dispensation, yet the Lord did not use Peter to convey those sealing keys to Joseph and Oliver. [A more mundane example might be an Elders' or Deacons' Quorum president, who holds keys--but has no power to pass those keys to someone else; that power is retained by the stake president or bishop.]
  3. It is clearly stated in the Book of Mormon, more than once, that the Twelve in the Western Hemisphere were subject and would be subject to the Twelve in Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 12:9; Mormon 3:18-19). This suggests, again, that a people may have sufficient keys of the priesthood to operate the Church without having the right to pass those keys to future dispensations.
  4. Truly, all of the keys and powers of the priesthood have not yet been delivered to us in our day; much lies in futurity, including the keys of creation, translation, and resurrection.
(From Robert L. Millett, "Prophets and Priesthood in the Old Testament," Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005, p. 65.)

I'm sure that there's still more to the story of Ammon that I'm missing--but at least I don't have that nagging feeling when I read about his "unworthiness" any more.


Jan said...

I've often wondered about that as well. Thanks for clearing that up. Another question that I've been wondering about but haven't put much effort into finding out the answer is: Why was Alma able to baptize after fleeing from King Noah? I'm sure that you or some of your reader's that are scripturians have the answer so feel free to share...

Jo Jo said...

You're such a thinker. Thanks. I'm thinkless most of the time. What's wrong with me?