Prosper in the Land

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.

16 comments for “Prosper in the Land

  1. And as Hugh Nibley was also at great pains to emphasize, the only valid reason to pursue “prosperity in the land” according to the Book of Mormon is to “to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” The Book of Mormon fairly beats us over the head with this theme, in for example (and this is only a sampling): 2 Nephi 9:30, 2 Nephi 20:1-3, 2 Nephi 26:20, 2 Nephi 28:12-15, Jacob 2:12-19, Mosiah 4:14-26 (this one especially gets ignored in Sunday School), Alma 4:11-13, Alma 5:53-56, Alma 34:27-29, Helaman 4:12, Helaman 6:39-40, 3 Nephi 26:19, 4 Nephi 1:3, Mormon 8:35-37, and etc. (not to mention Matt. 19:21-24, Matt. 25:41-45, Acts 2:44-45, D&C 42:30-39, D&C 49:20, and so on and so forth). This, too, is the overriding thesis of the Book of Mormon.

    You are absolutely right that those who accuse the Book of Mormon of “prosperity gospel” (an awful accusation indeed) are wrong, that the Book clearly does not support any such shallow reading of the text. But oh how I have longed to hear in Sunday School that there is only one valid reason to pray for the “increase of our flocks” and “prosper in the land”—perhaps because it, too, has never been fashionable.

  2. I’m glad you pointed out that the promise was collective. There’s no indication in the Book of Mormon that righteous individuals were wealthier than unrighteous individuals. Of the great righteous men in the Book of Mormon, only two are described as wealthy (Lehi and Amulek) and they both lose their wealth as a direct result of obeying the Lord.

    You can see what the Book of Mormon means by “prosper” by looking up the times Mormon said that, due to the Nephites’ collective righteousness, this promise was fulfilled. Yes, wealth is usually mentioned–almost always as the thing that triggers Nephite pride and ends the current righteous phase. But more consistently Mormon describes Nephite prospering as being protected the from Lamanites (usually by being at peace with them), having an adequate food supply, and their population increasing (suggesting lower child mortality).

    This is not the “prosperity gospel” as it is preached (falsely) today.

  3. I think it’s also important to remember that the Nephites lived under the constant threat of annihilation from their enemies. And so, what we have is a people who cannot be uprooted from the land of their inheritance so long as they are keeping the commandments. And, of course, we see that, in the end, they were destroyed by their enemies–but only because of their own iniquity. Their enemies never would have had power over them had they remained obedient to the commandments.

  4. Sorry to be the annoying quibbler regarding symmetry, but according to Amaron, God also said, “Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall not prosper in the land.”

    I appreciate JB’s point that God’s intent is not to reward obedience with a life of selfish luxury. But even if we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that God approves of selfishness, there is still the other trap of judging people’s righteousness according to their prosperity. When God says “If A then B” and “If not A then not B”, how can we blame anyone for judging A based on B?

  5. Robert, thanks for pointing that out. I’m glad to see that at least sometimes, the wicked take it in the wallet.

    The awareness that most times the Book of Mormon threatens only a loss of the Lord’s presence should keep us from rushing to judgment about prosperity and righteousness. That, and the well-known commandment not to judge unrighteously. I think most of the time, most of us are aware that wealth and righteousness aren’t perfectly correlated. When we slip and get little too impressed with wealth or celebrity, the results haven’t been great.

  6. Regardless of the asymmetry, the couplet implies that those who are poor are not righteous. That seems like the prosperity gospel to me. It’s fine not to care, I guess. I wish God provided needed food, shelter, and clothing to everyone, at least to the righteous and the innocent. Manifestly, He does not. That is the question that might be explored.

  7. Like the OP states, “the promise of prosperity is not individual but collective.” The Book of Mormon NEVER tells us that an individual prospered. When prospering happens, it’s the whole community. 4th Nephi goes even further, telling us that in a righteous society, not only are there no poor, but also that there are no rich, presumably because they’ve given their wealth away so that no one else is poor.

    God expects those of us who can afford it to provide needed food, shelter, and clothing to everyone. Only then–only once the rich and middle class make sure everyone is provided for–does prosperity happen.

  8. AM, God has in fact provided food, shelter, etc. to everyone – a whole planet full of it, in fact! The hard question posed to us is how we’re going to make sure that everyone can access them. Opinions about the best way to do that differ, and efforts to accomplish it haven’t always been stellar, unfortunately. But we’ve actually made some decent progress over the last several decades of lifting people out of food precarity.

  9. I don’t agree that the promises in the Book of Mormon are always collective. Mosiah 2:41 seems to be referring to individuals. “Efforts to accomplish it haven’t always been stellar” is a gross understatement, in my opinion. There are still a lot of people living without basic necessities. I agree that progress has been made, though.

  10. I should have been more charitable. Your statement about stellar efforts was obviously intentionally understated. I appreciate some things you said. I find the prosperity gospel to be a destructive doctrine. Hopefully we can continue to improve life on this planet.

  11. One thing that discussions like this one illustrate is that religious promises are generally too ambiguous to falsify. What does it mean to prosper, and can we expect God to make good on the promise every time? Regarding the latter, apparently not. Consider the Willie & Martin handcart companies, who collectively obeyed an apostle in pushing forward despite the late start. Their experience didn’t even clear the extremely low prosperity bar of avoiding starvation.

  12. No worries, AM.

    Robert, your two comments both get at a tension in how we approach scriptural text and religious experience more broadly. On the one hand, I want to say: Well, we can’t just treat scripture as a set of logical propositions and create syllogisms. But on the other hand, sometimes we do just that. When and how and why get worked out as an interpretive community over time.

    The same with falsifying religious promises: Even if we take “prospering” as something like “not suffering from food precarity,” the Willie & Martin handcart companies failed to reach that bar, even as we see their experience as part of the unfolding of God’s plan in modern days. At the same time, we can look at the Utah experience and easily see “prospering” on a larger scale. What’s the right group size and what’s the right time frame? As an interpretive community, we’re generally engaged in discovering the truth of scriptural texts rather than falsifying them. That may not be everyone’s preferred approach to the scriptures, but I think it comes down to the difference between scriptural texts and other types.

  13. @Robert: If by “falsifying” a promise you mean “establish that no legitimate interpretation of that promise is true” then yeah, that’s hard. But falsifying a specific interpretation is often doable (assuming it’s false). In particular, the interpretation that “righteous individuals prosper and individuals who aren’t prospering must not be righteous” is easily falsified by examples in the scriptures themselves. Above all, there’s that carpenter’s son from Nazareth who ended up homeless and lived off handouts for years before finally being crucified by the Romans. Talk about not prospering in the land! If anything, righteousness and prospering seem to be negatively correlated in the New Testament and Doctrine and Covenants.

    And it’s good we can establish that, because I agree with AM that that “righteous individuals prosper and individuals who aren’t prospering must not be righteous” is a false and destructive doctrine. It leads people to judge others. Even worse, it creates false expectations and sets people up for faith crises when those expectations are not met.

    Is there an interpretation of that promise that is true? Well, I believe Mormon when he describes the Nephites prospering (as a group) because of their righteousness (as a group) but I don’t anticipate seeing circumstances that would allow that to happen in my lifetime. So that promise isn’t terribly relevant to me. But I very much appreciate what seeing Nephite society cycle between collective righteousness and collective wickedness teaches us about what makes a good society–in particular low levels of poverty and inequality (something other books of scripture teach as well). We can and should work toward that without worrying about whether we’ll ever reach the point that as a society we’ll “prosper in the land” as a result.

  14. In a modern application of the prosperity gospel, President Nelson in 2018 said the following about preaching to the African people. “We preach tithing to the poor people of the world because the poor people of the world have had cycles of poverty, generation after generation. That same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing”.

    When I read this statement initially, I was gobsmacked by the insinuation and the burden of freeing people from poverty being placed entirely on the impoverished. Maybe, what the Book of Mormon is attempting to do is point out that the overwhelming presence of poverty is more an indication that the economically privileged are the ones failing to keep God’s commandments instead of placing judgement on those in poverty. I don’t think the reason people are poor is because they don’t pay tithing, but I think it’s distinctly possible that our tithing could be used in ways to offer much greater relief.

    I hate to say it, but if Jesus came right now, I don’t think he would be lecturing the poor on the reasons they are poor, rather I think the critique would be squarely placed on the wealthy who take from the poor, make them promises, but never do what Jesus actually asked them to do.

    The way I see it, the burden of eliminating poverty lies far more on the wealthy than the poor.

  15. @ Todd,
    It depends, to me, what kind of poverty these people are suffering from. I live in a low-income area, and I see two types of poverty: poverty from circumstances beyond one’s control, and willful, generational poverty.
    The first happens to people through plain bad luck, emergencies, natural disasters, etc. It’s not a choice, it’s a situation that happens to people who generally live within their means, work hard, and try. Most of these people, given a chance, will pull themselves out of poverty, especially given the blessings of tithing.
    The second happens when people refuse to work, rely on handouts, and have a general attitude of entitlement – the world OWES them. These would not pay tithing even if they were rich.
    Those who are poor by circumstance will be wise with money once they have it; those poor by choice will be poor even when they have an income of six figures – or more.
    The difference between the two is gratitude. That’s why the prophets ask people to pay tithing. When people are grateful to God for their blessings, be they ever so small, they are more generous with what they do have, and that creates a virtuous upward spiral for the world.
    We will never eliminate poverty by taking from the wealthy to give to the poor; we will eliminate poverty by properly loving God and neighbor, which will eventually result in caring for every person’s needs and wants.
    Certainly the wealthy are often condemned in scripture, but the Good Samaritan obviously had the funds to pay for a stranger’s stay in the inn, so it’s not the wealth, but the love of wealth, that’s the problem.

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