In a long-ago post, John Fowles referred to a Book of Mormon couplet as the book’s thesis:
Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land;
but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence (2 Nephi 1:20)
The same couplet occurs at least 14 times in whole or part in the Book of Mormon, spoken by prophets from Nephi to Mormon (see notes on a prior post for the philological details). In its first occurrence, Nephi recalls it as something the Lord had already revealed to him in the wilderness, although that event isn’t recorded. In its last occurrence, Mormon cites it as something revealed to Lehi (perhaps referring to 2 Nephi 1:20). The couplet wraps around Alma’s words to his son Helaman in Alma 36, with half the couplet found in verse one and the whole couplet at the end of the chapter in verse 30, and it occurs again in the next chapter as Alma confers the plates and other artifacts on Helaman. Curiously, there is another allusion to it in a second scene of a final encounter between Alma and Helaman, where it is the culmination of a three-part catechism:
Believest thou the words which I spake unto thee concerning those records which have been kept?
Believest thou in Jesus Christ, who shall come?
Will ye keep my commandments?
After Helaman responds affirmatively each time, Alma tells him:
Blessed art thou; and the Lord shall prosper thee in this land. (Alma 45:2-8)
Alma gives a final prophecy, and then departs from the land, never to be seen again.
To affirm what John Fowles wrote: this seems to be a central message of the Book of Mormon, repeated over a dozen times, including in some high-profile passages. While studying the Book of Mormon this year, we’ll miss something important if we’re not aware of the couplet, and as a central teaching of a work of scripture, we need to think seriously about it.
But as scriptural teachings go, “inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” is also deeply unfashionable. Specifically:
- The promise is conditional. It’s explicitly dependent on human action, not unconditionally granted to all.
- Worse yet, the promise is conditioned on obedience, another unfashionable concept.
- To compound the embarrassment, the Book of Mormon takes an old-fashioned view of commandments, prescribing some behaviors and forbidding others. The couplet’s blessing primarily depends not on having feelings of peace or love towards one’s fellow man, but on refraining from lying, deceiving, whoredoms, secret abominations, idolatry, murder, priestcraft, envying, strife, and all wickedness and abominations, to mention just one partial list.
- Worst of all, in exchange for obedience, the Book of Mormon promises “prosperity,” which the scriptural text repeatedly uses to refer to material abundance (2 Nephi 5:11, Mosiah 9:9, 10:5, 21:16, 23:20, 27:7; Alma 1:31, 9:22, etc.).
- To make this even more awkward, the promise is that the obedient will prosper “in the land.” Whether understood as Israel where Nephi was born or the Americas where he and his family settled, we’re acutely aware today how claims to geography are contested, and prospering in either place could be regarded as suspect.
- Finally, the promise of prosperity is not individual but collective. Except in the one scene between Alma and Helaman, the couplet always uses the plural “ye,” and often it is explicitly tied to a people as a whole, designated as a plural “they” (1 Nephi 4:14, 2 Nephi 5:20, Alma 50:20)
The promise is also strangely asymmetric: failure to keep the commandments results not in withdrawal of prosperity, but in being cut off from the Lord’s presence, even if the prosperity might continue. This isn’t the ‘prosperity gospel,’ as the asymmetric nature of the promise prevents the equivalence of wealth with righteousness.
But if you insist that this is so the prosperity gospel, then my response is: I don’t care. I’ll take the gospel that includes prayers for our daily bread and praying over crassly material things like flocks and fields, a Savior who provides loaves and fishes for hungry people, in short a gospel that directly addresses the primary concern of 99% of humanity for 99% of human history – avoiding starvation.
One thing that the promise of prosperity in return for obedience does have going for it is that its truth can be verified by observation. For a group of people of any significant size, avoiding high levels of deceit, envy, murder, and strife is highly conducive to material prosperity. So it may not be fashionable to say so, but it is scriptural and moreover true: Inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land.