Guest post by Rosalynde Frandsen Welch
It’s April, and here in St. Louis the highway embankments vibrate with the exuberant greens, yellows, and violets of roadside weeds in their glory. My winter-lean eyes devour this color. At busy exits, another sign of spring arrives: increasing numbers of people petitioning at stoplights for food and money, cardboard signs held like petals to the sun.
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow” said Jesus. “They toil not, neither do they spin” (Matthew 6:28).
If these men and women are to be kept like the wildflowers by God’s bounty, as Jesus promised, it falls to me to be the means of God’s grace.
For believers in the Book of Mormon, every encounter with a person who appeals for sustenance is charged with ethical and existential significance. King Benjamin’s famous address, which opens the book of Mosiah, features one of the most stirring passages in the Book of Mormon:
Ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. … For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4:16, 19)
Those words circle my head every time I come face to face with a person in need. The passage has prompted me on countless occasions to give—sometimes perfunctorily, to be sure—when I otherwise might have rationalized or ignored the petition. How many petitions, large and small, have found a receptive giver because of these words? How many complacent minds roused to compassion? How many wildflowers fed and clothed in God’s grace?
This week, Latter-day Saints following the worldwide Come Follow Me Sunday school program will begin a new study of King Benjamin’s address in Mosiah 2–5, experiencing the masterful sermon alongside the original audience of people of Zarahemla. We will hear Benjamin’s call to give to every petitioner relief without condescension and solidarity without judgment. We will witness the essential equality of the human family—a field of wildflowers beggared before God, vulnerable to the mower’s blade and dependent for our sustenance on the good grace of creation.
Mosiah chapter 4 was the subject of the 2018 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar, sponsored by BYU’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, and the Wheatley Institution. A small group of scholars came together in Assisi, Italy, for intensive study of the thirty verses of Mosiah 4. The papers that emerged from the two-week Seminar, described by the participants here, will be published in a forthcoming volume. We’re pleased to share a sampling of these papers right now as a resource for readers interested in enriching their study of Mosiah 4 with scholarly theological reflection.
Seminar students found a striking breadth of theological exploration in Mosiah 4. King Benjamin’s ethical instruction to care for the vulnerable presses on us so weightily because it is secured to theological bedrock. Benjamin’s sermon explores the sovereignty of God, the work of creation, the humility of human creatureliness, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the meaning of atonement, and the assurance of salvation—to name just a sampling of its themes.
Benjamin’s ethic of charitable giving in Mosiah 4 grows out of his teachings on salvation. But what is the relationship of the two? Does a person’s effort to give ethically qualify her for salvation? Or does the event of salvation change her nature in such a way that she cares for the vulnerable as an effortless expression of her being? For that matter, what is salvation itself, and how does it persist through time? After receiving a remission of sins, how does one “retain” that remission and an accompanying assurance of salvation?
There is a sharp edge to Benjamin’s sermon. His description of God’s greatness emphasizes the comparative nothingness of his “unworthy [human] creatures,” raised from dust and destined to return to it (Mosiah 4:11). Our fallen nature is an enemy to God. The troubling aspects of his theology of salvation are mirrored in his ethics. “The beggar” appears only as a useful rhetorical figure in Benjamin’s sermon, not as a fully-realized subject of salvation and member of the covenant community. Even while urging compassion, King Benjamin reproduces the social exclusion that has marked his kingship (see Words of Mormon 1:13-16).
The selection of papers we are pleased to share here approaches these questions from various perspectives. Patrick Mason considers King Benjamin’s political work of state building in relation to his communitarian project of Zion building, and finds that the king’s generous ideals are hindered by the exigencies of his political aims:
Jared Hickman identifies two competing currents within Benjamin’s address—the sovereign force of God’s universal dominion as creator, and the immanent force of human efforts to create just societies. He argues that Mosiah 4 stages a negotiation between the secular and the sacred that has marked the Latter-day Saint tradition from the beginning:
Joseph Spencer works toward a theology of poverty, showing how King Benjamin’s teachings both support and revise liberation theologies of the poor. Though he does not advocate a 4 Nephi-style equality of wealth, Benjamin teaches that the poor hold a preferential place before God’s judgment bar—an interpretation with provocative ethical implications:
Christy Spackman reads Mosiah 4 through the lens of embodiment and matter. Matter can elicit new beginnings and reveal hidden structures, shedding important light on the Book of Mormon’s teaching on “substance” and prosperity:
Brandie Siegfried takes a complementary approach, offering a re-interpretation of “dust” as a symbol of the generative, living substance of creation. Bringing Old Testament texts from Psalms and Job to bear on Mosiah 4, Siegfried provides a joyful, hopeful reading of “nothingness” as the key to the remission of sins:
Adam Miller explores the conditions of salvation laid out in King Benjamin’s address. Mosiah 4, he argues, recasts salvation as a fundamental “edit” to our sense of self, which then entails a transformation in our logic of moral condemnation that swivels the gaze of justice from past deeds to future needs:
My own paper notes a parallel between Benjamin’s narrative in Mosiah 3 of his awakening to an angel, and his description in Mosiah 4 of salvation as an “awakening” to our own nothingness. In this light, salvation becomes a kind of mutual recreation of ourselves and the world:
In their breadth, these papers aim not for a definitive or comprehensive assessment of Mosiah 4. Rather, they test the fruitfulness of the scriptural text and demonstrate the capacity of theology to bloom new existential and ethical possibilities. For those who receive Mosiah 4 as scripture, its definitive meaning lives not merely in libraries or chapels, but among the wildflowers on freeway embankments and street corners.