Stenson uses Alma 5 (among other examples) to argue for a middle ground between those who argue for a continuity in the use and awareness of prophecies of Christ’s coming in the Book of Mormon, and those who argue for a break in that continuity, suggesting that Alma’s allusions to the small plates meant that later Nephites had at least some knowledge of Nephi’s prophetic tradition.
In this article, Matthew Scott Stenson presents a mediating perspective between those who argue that early Nephite teachings, prophecies, and scriptures—particularly Nephi’s small plates—continued to be used and taught throughout later Nephite periods (represented by Matt Roper), and those who argue for discontinuity, with those scriptural teachings falling out of use at some point prior to Christ’s coming in the New World (represented by Brent Metcalfe, Rebecca Roesler, and Grant Hardy). Acknowledging the concerns of those who advance a discontinuity perspective, Stenson points to Alma’s prophetic statements and allusions to 1 Nephi—statements that point people to the coming of Christ—as evidence of some level of continuity.
Stenson begins by laying out the case for discontinuity, where an apparent lack of knowledge of Nephi’s earlier prophecies of the coming of Christ by later authors appears suggestive of a break in the transmission of prophetic knowledge. He outlines four specific questions that highlight that potential break (as well as his own responses for each), including:
- Why Nephi’s prophecies are not explicitly referenced after the small plates. In response, Stenson frames Nephi’s six-hundred-years prophecy as referring specifically to Christ’s birth, rather than providing a concrete timing for his post-resurrection visit.
- Why Alma the Younger suggests that he doesn’t know whether the Lord will come to the New World. Stenson argues that this passage is best understood as qualifying the form and timing of his coming, rather than being unsure that he would come at all—a part of Alma’s attempt to more fully understand the “mysteries of God”.
- Why Mormon describes the Nephites as unaware of Christ’s coming at the time of Samuel the Lamanite. Stenson proposes that Samuel’s words may themselves represent an allusion to the small plates, suggesting continuity. He also emphasizes that Samuel’s audience is made up of unbelievers who may have forgotten or dismissed earlier prophecies.
- Why the people believe Jesus is an angel when he descends from heaven, rather than immediately recognizing him as the Christ. To this, Stenson rejoins that their confusion was temporary (and understandable given that Christ wasn’t the first “angel” to appear to them), and that the people had been gathered to discuss past prophecies now apparently fulfilled (itself suggesting that these prophecies had not been wholly forgotten).
Stenson acknowledges, quoting Hardy, that these passages don’t represent a “straightforward expectation” of Christ’s appearance in the New World. But he nevertheless advocates for a “modified continuity” within that context. Stenson’s case begins by arguing that Nephi and his successors expected their teachings to be effectively passed down through the generations, and, following the work of Clifford P. Jones, that Mormon’s abridgement and the teachings of Alma allude to an array of small-plates writing. Passages from Alma reinforce the potential for his personal possession of the small plates, particularly Alma 37. Though some of these allusions could have come from exposure to the large plates, the continuity of these teachings remains a relevant feature.
Stenson then provides an overview of the Nephite church in the time of Alma and Alma the Younger, focusing on Alma’s post-angelic-encounter inquiry into the Christ’s resurrection and visitation. This sets the stage for a broader summary of the Book of Mormon’s prophetic teachings regarding Christ’s coming. This summary includes:
- The teachings of Lehi regarding the coming of the Savior six hundred years after Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, which he speaks to separately from the Lord’s coming to the Nephites.
- Nephi’s teachings, where he describes the period of destruction and the subsequent coming of Christ in the New World.
- Jacob, who had three variations of Christ’s coming: to the Jews, to the Gentiles, and as a divine warrior as part of the Second Coming. Jacob references the “kingdom, which should come,” which may also refer to the coming of Christ to the Nephites (though it could also refer to the latter-day restoration).
- Enos, who alludes to Christ’s coming to the Jews, as well as an indication that Christ would “visit thy brethren.”
- Abinadi and King Benjamin, who both clearly speak of Christ’s incarnation. Stenson also argues that Benjamin includes an oblique reference to Christ ministering among all the children of men.
- Alma the Younger’s prophecy in Alma 5, which takes up a substantial amount of Stenson’s analytic attention. It includes personal warnings of destruction for those who work iniquity, along with predictions that the Lord’s coming as soon at hand. Stenson sees this latter prophecy as referring both to Christ’s atonement and Christ’s coming to the "ends of the earth," rather than the judgement associated with the end of their mortal tenure.
- Mormon’s use of Alma’s writings, which appears to occur in (1) Helaman, which talks about preparing the people’s hearts for "the time of his coming in his glory," with Samuel’s prophecy in Helaman 16 treated by Mormon as in harmony with previous revelations, and in (2) 3 Nephi, where Mormon’s reference to destruction appears to be in keeping with both the prophecies of Zenos and to Alma’s prediction of “fire” falling on the inhabitants of Zarahemla, as well as with Alma’s invitation of mercy.
Stenson closes with an astute summary of his own argument:
“There remain questions about the continuity of the prophecies concerning the Lord’s coming to the Jews and his other peoples on the face of the earth after Alma [the Younger], but it seems that it cannot be doubted that Alma, student of Nephi and others, taught fairly widely that the coming of the Lord would be to his own people…”
Stenson’s article is a good reminder that sometimes positions that seem at odds and mutually exclusive often don’t need to be. In this case, continuity could be framed as an either/or issue, with a clear disconnect standing at odds with firm continuity. Stenson outlines a middle ground that might not have otherwise been apparent, emphasizing the possibility of a possible discontinuity, particularly among those who had left behind church teachings. There are a number of issues related to the Restoration that can be at least partially resolved by similar middle grounds, and these should be examined wherever they can be found.
It’s also a good reminder that we should be careful about arguments from silence—silence itself is proof of very little, unless we have a very good reason to not expect silence. I’m not sure a failure to mention or concretely allude to specific passages of scripture within a certain portion of the Book of Mormon could ever produce a convincing argument from silence—there’s certainly enough for those ancient prophets to talk about without having to be logically required to allude to every past saying, even important ones. And though the parallels in language identified by Stenson are also not firm proof of conscious allusion, they outline intriguing opportunities in a way that silence has a hard time doing.