“What really lifts him to [the level of the world’s greatest men] is the moral grandeur of his life. He lived solely for the good of his people. He is the first instance in the history of Christendom of a ruler who put aside every personal aim or ambition to devote himself wholly to the welfare of those whom he ruled.”
This is historian J. R. Green’s description of Alfred (A.D. 849–901), the only English king who has come to be known as “the Great.” But the words are actually more appropriate to a king who lived a thousand years before Alfred, one whose deeds and concerns—in uniting his people, winning victories over their barbaric enemies, and developing their language and culture—remarkably parallel the English king’s, though his prophetic power and insight go far beyond King Alfred’s. His name was Benjamin, the figure in the Book of Mormon we most often mention with the title King. And to a degree almost beyond our imagination he “put aside every personal aim or ambition to devote himself wholly to the welfare of those whom he ruled”—not only their temporal and social welfare, but also their eternal welfare.
For the many Latter-day Saints with deep-rooted ties to British history—in Britain, in the Commonwealth nations like Canada and Australia, and in the United States—Alfred was the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, truly the father of uniquely British civilization. He is remembered for uniting a nation threatened with conquest by marauding Danes and crippled by civil strife, for his encouragement of literature in the developing English language, for establishing the roots of a national culture, and for the personal humility and Christian piety that made him a powerful and long-remembered example to the English people and their kings. For all these reasons, King Alfred came to my mind immediately when I viewed King Benjamin as a figure on the world stage. And the comparison is useful because, knowing something more about King Alfred (because of more and fuller records), we can imagine in greater detail Benjamin’s rather similar character and accomplishments—and because our feelings of appreciation for Alfred can enhance our appreciation of Benjamin, who was in many ways an even greater king and was certainly a much greater servant of the Lord.
Like Alfred, Benjamin comes into view as a great light after the dark ages of his people. Following the great spiritual outpourings of Nephi and his brother Jacob—and even of Jacob’s son Enos and his grandson Jarom—the book of Omni reveals a long period, from before 400 B.C. to after 200 B.C., when the small plates of Nephi, designed to record the religious experience of the people, are no more than an outline. The sacred record is passed from father to son for five generations, essentially without addition, until Abinadom tells us why the record is so sparse in a haunting commentary on his nation’s spiritual decline: “I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy [the last recorded was to Enos nearly 300 years before]; wherefore, that which is sufficient is written.” (Omni 1:11.)
But the next record keeper, Abinadom’s son Amaleki, has much more to tell us, because during his life the Lord warned the Nephite king, Mosiah I, to flee the land of Lehi-Nephi with “as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord” (Omni 1: 12)—whether to escape the Lamanites or the decline and corruption of other Nephites is uncertain. They are led through the wilderness to Zarahemla, where they find a people more numerous than themselves—yet more barbaric and spiritually in need. It turns out that these are descendants of the people of Mulek, who fled Jerusalem when it was destroyed shortly after Lehi’s departure. But because Mulek had left in such desperate haste, or perhaps because of a lack of prophetic foresight, he had brought no records—nothing like the brass plates of Laban that the Lord told Lehi to bring, which provided the Nephite civilization with a crucial source of language, literature, culture, and, most significantly, the moral and religious teachings of the prophets, especially concerning the holy Messiah who would come.
We can see here most dramatically a central theme of the Book of Mormon: records, especially scriptural records, must be kept and preserved, valued and taught from generation to generation, or a people will dwindle in unbelief—and in every other way. In a mere 400 years without written records, the Mulekites had become warlike and contentious, their language had become corrupted so that they and the Nephites could not even understand each other, “and they denied the being of their Creator.” (Omni 1:17.) But Mosiah began a marvelous work, completed by his son, Benjamin, of making these separate, semibarbaric tribes into a civilized, Christian nation.
Amaleki tells of Mosiah first teaching the people of Mulek the Nephite language and then of the two groups uniting culturally and politically under his kingship. The record keeper lived to see Mosiah’s death and the beginning of King Benjamin’s reign, a time that in its “serious war and much bloodshed” (Omni 1:24) is much like Alfred the Great’s early years: the young King Benjamin had to repulse invading Lamanites as Alfred fought the Danes; like Alfred, Benjamin led his armies personally, fighting “with the strength of his own arm, with the sword of Laban.” (W of M 1:13.) Then, just as in Alfred’s life, there was a profound turning point as the vigorous fighter for freedom turned to the arts of peace.
Amaleki, having no son and “knowing king Benjamin to be a just man before the Lord” (Omni 1:25), turned the small plates of Nephi over to him, bringing the separate religious record to a close because now one man was both prophet and king, recording all events on the large plates. Then, for an all-too-short period of time—until the end of the reign of his son, Mosiah II—there is a great “golden age,” a time when the ancient ideal is realized of uniting power and righteousness in a single leader to form a theocracy, that perfect but difficult and extremely rare form of government we have seen under Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and in modern times for a while under Brigham Young.
Over 500 years later, when Mormon abridged and edited the Nephite records into the Book of Mormon, he included a chapter of editorial commentary—The Words of Mormon—at the end of the small plates of Nephi to explain why he had included them and to make a transition to his continued abridgment of the large plates, a secular record Nephi had started and which under Benjamin would become the religious record as well. Mormon tells how King Benjamin, having won several generations of peace from his external enemies, turned to internal problems. He established civil order, punishing false teachers “according to their crimes” (W of M 1:15) and dealing with others who caused “contention and many dissensions away unto the Lamanites.” (W of M 1:16.) Then he built up a core of supporters, teachers of righteousness, “holy men [who] did speak the word of God with power and with authority. “Wherefore, with the help of these [holy men], king Benjamin, by laboring with all the might of his body and the faculty of his whole soul, and also the prophets, did once more establish peace in the land.” (W of M 1:17–18.)
Like his father, Mosiah, Benjamin also paid great attention to language: his son Mosiah commented that Benjamin caused that his sons “should be taught in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding.” (Mosiah 1:2.) Benjamin forcefully explained to his sons that if God, through his prophets, had not preserved the brass plates from Jerusalem and the plates of Nephi, which contained the acts and teachings of the American prophets, “we must have suffered in ignorance, … not knowing the mysteries of God. … Even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites.” (Mosiah 1:3, 5.) He therefore commanded his sons to search the records diligently.
But the importance of language to King Benjamin and his profound, inspired skill with words are revealed best in his famous last address. Seeing that he was approaching death, Benjamin had his son Mosiah, who was to be his successor, call the people together so he could announce the succession and give a final message of transcendent importance. That sermon, given to all the citizens of Zarahemla gathered at the temple, is one of the longest and most powerful in the Book of Mormon. The very preservation of the speech itself testifies to the success of Benjamin and his father in making language an effective resource, because it was possible for King Benjamin to have the speech “written and sent forth among those that were not under the sound of his voice” (Mosiah 2:8) and then to include what is probably an abridgement in the large plates. Thus we have before us much of the speaker’s own words and exact thought, which enables us to analyze the speech with attention to Benjamin’s skill of organization and specific imagery and wording.
King Benjamin’s language immediately establishes him as a secure, authoritative king: “I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak.” (Mosiah 2:9.) But at the same time his words show him to be amazingly realistic and humble: “I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind; yet I have been … kept and preserved … to serve you with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord hath granted unto me.” (Mosiah 2:11.) He seems determined to dispel the superstitious awe that the people have had for him and his father, perhaps because if they thought he was “more than a mortal man” his own example would be useless to them. He emphasizes how much he is like them so that they must accept as relevant to them both the great qualities of his life and the force of his own humble message—that with all his great work he is yet in God’s debt. He reminds them that he has not exploited them in any way with taxes or unjust laws and punishments, but has labored with his own hands for his support. Yet he has served them mightily. He explains this, not to boast, but to teach them the great lesson “that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” (Mosiah 2:17.)
King Benjamin then uses a series of powerful rhetorical devices to touch the souls of his hearers and bring them toward the meekness and lowliness of heart essential to their acceptance of Christ. His framework is a simple but devastating argument: If I your king have served you, you should serve one another, and if I deserve any thanks, “O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!” (Mosiah 2:19.) But no matter how much you thank the Lord and try to serve him by serving each other, Benjamin tells them, you will always be profoundly in his debt. He strengthens the emotional force of this rational argument by a series of rapid parallels in verses 20 and 21. The words “I say … if” introduce three crescendoing statements of what we might do to repay God: “I say … if you should render all the thanks and praise … —I say … if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day … —I say, if you should serve him with all your whole souls. …” We read these in increasing hope, only to be profoundly shocked at the climax with the flat announcement that no matter how much we serve him, “yet ye would be unprofitable servants.” (Mosiah 2:20–21.) King Benjamin ultimately builds up to the fact that because our very lives are a gift and because when we obey him God immediately blesses us more, we are so indebted to God “and will be, forever and ever,” that we “cannot say that [we] are even as much as the dust of the earth.” (Mosiah 2:25.) And he anticipates anyone’s defense that at least we are created of the dust of the earth by noting that “behold it belongeth to him who created you.”
Then in a marvelous transition he begins to move from this emotional sense of our utter dependence to a consideration of our sinfulness: he combines that same image of dust with an earlier theme by reminding his people that even he, their king, whom they have thought of as more than mortal, is “also of the dust” (Mosiah 2:26) and in fact is about to return to the dust. But first he must cleanse himself of their sins by declaring repentance to them. (Mosiah 2:27–28.)
King Benjamin then carefully defines sin as a person’s “having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge” (Mosiah 2:33) and reminds his people that under his leadership they have all, except their little children, been taught the law and are thus without excuse. (Mosiah 2:34.) He evokes just the right combination of guilt and hope in them before announcing that the resolution to their dilemma is a forthcoming Savior. Benjamin does not directly accuse anyone, but uses two general “if” propositions that leave the hearers free to look, without defensiveness, into themselves at their own individual sins and desires: “If ye should transgress and go contrary to that which has been spoken, … the man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God; … if that man repenteth not, [he] remaineth and dieth an enemy to God. …” (Mosiah 2:36–39.) At the same time he portrays first the awful fate of those who thus “withdraw [them]selves from the Spirit of the Lord,” become enemies “to all righteousness,” and thus lay themselves open to a final doom of “never-ending torment” (Mosiah 2:36–39), and then “the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God, … hold out faithful to the end,” and are able to “dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness.” (Mosiah 2:40–41.)
With this careful foundation King Benjamin moves to his central message. He reports that an angel from God had visited him to declare “glad tidings of great joy,” so that he might rejoice and declare them to his people “that they may also be filled with joy.” King Benjamin was thus one of a long line of Book of Mormon prophets, “wise men” as Helaman calls them (Hel. 16:14), to hear directly from heavenly messengers the most glorious announcement in human history. And he gives us more extensively than we have anywhere else the actual declaration of the angel.
King Benjamin’s report of the angel’s message includes full and clear statement of the nature and purpose of Christ’s mission. He emphasizes what an angel who visited Nephi nearly 500 years before had called the “condescension of God” (1 Ne. 11:16)—the Lord’s literal descent with us into the depths of our temporal and spiritual pain, experiencing the fullness of our earthly trial, in order to love us with a direct comprehension that would have power to redeem us. In a meaningful and dramatic statement of our Savior’s incarnation King Benjamin announces, “The time … is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent … shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay.” (Mosiah 3:5.) The words emphasize the disparity between what Jesus was—“Lord Omnipotent”—and what he was willing to become—“clay”—in order to identify with us and move us to repent.
After a short review of the Lord’s ministry, King Benjamin turns to the central act of the Atonement: “He shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.” (Mosiah 3:7.)
The account goes on to announce the name of Jesus Christ and of his mother, Mary. Then the angel declares the Lord’s resurrection, that his blood atones for all who sinned ignorantly and that salvation can come to “him who knoweth that he rebelleth against God” only “through repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Mosiah 3:8, 11–12.) And then King Benjamin gives us an astounding perspective: these people, and probably other individuals and peoples as well, could become Christians in every sense, including fully experiencing redemption, 158 years before our Redeemer’s death on the cross: “The Lord God hath sent his holy prophets among all the children of men, to declare these things to every kindred, nation, and tongue, that thereby whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceeding great joy, even as though he had already come among them.” (Mosiah 3:13; italics added.)
Because this fact has not been available to traditional Christianity, most theories of the working of Christ’s atonement have supposed that what he did literally changed the universe so that only people after that time could be saved. King Benjamin’s sermon and its recorded effect on his people show us that when Christ descended from his heavenly position and lived and suffered and died in mortality he ransomed all those who would have faith in his atonement and repent of their sins, whether they lived before or after it happened. In the words of the prophet Amulek some fifty years after Benjamin, the Lord’s achievement for all mankind was “to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.” (Alma 34:15.)
And that is precisely what happened to King Benjamin’s people when the angel’s message again harrowed up their souls with a vision of their great need to accept the Savior. The angel quoted the Lord as saying, “If they be evil they are consigned to an awful view of their own guilt and abominations, which doth cause them to shrink from the presence of the Lord.” (Mosiah 3:25.) The people responded by humbling themselves “to the earth” in true repentance (Mosiah 4:1), and they “received a remission of their sins, and … peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come.” (Mosiah 4:3.) Seeing that the process of redemption had begun in them, King Benjamin responded by reviewing his message of salvation through the Savior’s atonement. He taught them that by continually humbling themselves in daily meditation on God’s goodness and their relative unworthiness and by “standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come”—Christ’s life and suffering for them—they “shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins.” (Mosiah 4:11–12.)
King Benjamin then continues with a series of very specific teachings about how, after being thus saved by the Atonement, a person must continue to live a Christlike life, growing “in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you.” (Mosiah 4:12.)
First, he gives us one of the finest teachings in all scripture about the duty of parents, in which we probably hear the voice of his own personal experience as a father: “And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin. … But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.” (Mosiah 4:14–15.)
Then King Benjamin conveys to us one of the most extraordinary views in all literature of the ultimate demands of Christlike love when he requires that we as individuals give of what substance we have to those that ask, without judging what they “deserve.” It is painful for us to see our own rationalizations in King Benjamin’s picture of those who say of beggars and others who are needy, “The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I … will not give unto him, … for his punishments are just.” It is even more painful to know we share their condemnation: “Whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth … he perisheth forever.” (Mosiah 4:17–18.) But King Benjamin’s logic is inescapable. He goes back to his central image, that all of us, including himself, the king, are actually beggars, utterly dependent upon a generous God for all the substance we have, for our very lives, and finally for our forgiveness and joy: “And now, if God, who has created you, … doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.” (Mosiah 4:21.)
Benjamin’s third specific teaching reveals the humble, practical nature of his own daily life—which he has obviously kept simple and sweetly responsive to the everyday concerns and experience of his people: “And I would that ye should remember, that whosoever among you borroweth of his neighbor should return the thing that he borroweth, according as he doth agree, or else thou shalt commit sin; and perhaps thou shalt cause thy neighbor to commit sin also.” (Mosiah 4:28.)
Confirmed in their repentance by these teachings, the people assure King Benjamin that they “have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2), and that they are willing to “enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things.” (Mosiah 5:5.)
King Benjamin accepts their covenant, formalizing it by having their names recorded. (Mosiah 6:1.) Benjamin tells them that as they have taken the name of Christ upon them, they have become his adopted children, spiritually born of him and made free. (Mosiah 5:7–8.) In a beautiful last image he pleads with them to never let that name be blotted out of their hearts by transgression, but “to retain the name written always in your hearts, … that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also, the name by which he shall call you.” (Mosiah 5:11–12.)
The old king lived three more years and died about 121 B.C. But with characteristic attention to practical needs he had added to his many achievements one of the finest—and rarest—legacies a king can provide: an orderly succession to the next king. At the time of his great speech, Benjamin had given his son Mosiah “all the charges concerning the kingdom, and also had appointed priests to teach the people, that thereby they might hear and know the commandments of God, and to stir them up in remembrance of the oath which they had made.” (Mosiah 6:3.)
The list of Benjamin’s achievements is long and to some degree paradoxical. Though he had the power and could have had the riches of a king, he set a different example and left us our finest teachings on humility and service. Though he lived long before Jesus’ coming, he left us one of our fullest, most moving accounts of the nature and power of Jesus’ mission. Even while occupied with the enormous political and social tasks of uniting two different peoples and establishing a common language and culture among them, he labored humbly with his own hands to support himself; and at the same time developed great literary and theological skills, providing us with one of the world’s great sermons, which contains not only great imagery and skillful oratory but also marvelous and unique insights: that in the final judgment we judge ourselves (Mosiah 3:25); that the punishment of hell is an internal torment like “a lake of fire and brimstone” (Mosiah 3:27; italics added); that service to others is the same as service to God and should be given without judging them (Mosiah 2:17; Mosiah 4:16–26); and so on. Benjamin has blessed all the generations of his own people and all modern generations who have the Book of Mormon.
King Alfred wrote late in his life that he longed “to leave to the men that come after a remembrance of me in good works.” That could well express King Benjamin’s own hope, which was marvelously fulfilled: His son Mosiah later decided—because his own sons, who had turned to missionary work among the Lamanites, did not want to take over the throne after his death (Mosiah 29:3–4)—to change the government from a monarchy to a republic. At that time he told the people, “If it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people— … then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.” (Mosiah 29:13.) And almost 100 years after King Benjamin’s death the great Nephite prophet Helaman taught his sons, “Remember … the words which King Benjamin spake unto his people; yea, remember that there is no other way nor means whereby man can be saved, only through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, who shall come, yea, remember that he cometh to redeem the world.” (Hel. 5:9.)
Obviously King Benjamin was one of those rare mortals who take upon themselves so fully the divine nature that they become direct models for Christlike living—even bringing others to know Christ himself. Probably one reason he could move his people so quickly and profoundly to a newness of being was that they actually saw in him a prototype of Jesus Christ, whose future coming he taught them about. And this may explain why the angel was sent to convey so fully and precisely to his mind what the nature and spirit of the Lord’s earthly mission would be: he understood these glad tidings in such a way as to be able to teach them with such immediate effectiveness—and in language that can still, 2,000 years later and in translation, leave us breathless with insight and conviction.
Because of his great leadership, held in long remembrance, King Benjamin ranks with the great rulers of history who have blessed their people with peace and civilizing influences. But because he also brought his own people to redemption and left for all men one of history’s most powerful testimonies of salvation through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, he may well be the greatest king who has ever lived.