03084_000_033From rebellious prince to dynamic missionary, this saga of change gives us a new understanding of repentance.
The story of Ammon is one of the most dramatic and heroic in scriptural literature. From a rebellious prince, one of “the very vilest of sinners” (Mosiah 28:4), fighting against the church of God in his father Mosiah’s kingdom, Ammon underwent a transcendent conversion and dedicated the next fourteen years of his life to a perilous and difficult mission among the Lamanites. With his brothers, Ammon was instrumental in converting thousands of Lamanites to Christ, thereby changing the course of Lamanite history. At the end of his mission, Ammon became the high priest over these same people (see Alma 30:20), who were called after him—the people of Ammon (see Alma 27:26).
There is enough in Alma’s recounting of Ammon’s mission to the Lamanites to suggest that he recognized that such a story, with its many examples of great faith, repentance, courage, and love, would well support the expressed purpose of the Book of Mormon: “Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever. …” (Title page.) How well we see the response of part of that “remnant of the House of Israel,” the Lamanites of today, to that message of welcome return to the kingdom of God, and the great blessings they have received as a result. And how well we see the good fortune of the “Jew and Gentile,” who have participated in those blessings and received another powerful witness “that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” (Ibid.)
Our first encounter with Ammon in the Book of Mormon finds him trying to destroy the church. With his brothers and with Alma the Younger, he rebelled not only against the commandments of God but also against the proclamations of his father, King Mosiah, who had established a law prohibiting persecution of the believers. What is said of Alma could undoubtedly also be said of Ammon: “He became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them.” (Mosiah 27:9.) Later, in recounting this period of their lives to his brothers, Ammon said, “Behold, we went forth even in wrath, with mighty threatenings to destroy his church.” (Alma 26:18.)
Alma the Elder was so troubled by the rebellion of his son Alma that he prayed with great faith that the Lord would show him the error of his ways. In response, the Lord sent an angel, who appeared to Alma and Ammon and the rest of Mosiah’s sons and spoke “with a voice of thunder” (Mosiah 27:11), causing the earth to shake beneath them. Like Paul, who had a similar experience on the road to Damascus, Ammon and his companions were astonished and frightened, for they recognized this as a demonstration of the power of God, which they had been denying. Following the angel’s departure, they fell to the earth, doubtless overpowered by a realization of their perilous position before the Lord. In this state they began to repent, and the Lord, as Ammon said, “snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state. … In his great mercy [he] hath brought us over that everlasting gulf of death and misery, even to the salvation of our souls.” (Alma 26:17, 20.)
So grateful were they for being redeemed from their iniquity that Ammon, his brothers, and Alma set out to make restitution for the wrongs they had done, “zealously striving to repair all the injuries which they had done to the church, confessing all their sins, and publishing all the things which they had seen, and explaining the prophecies and the scriptures to all who desired to hear them.” (Mosiah 27:35.) In spite of being persecuted and abused by nonbelievers, they “did impart much consolation to the church” (Mosiah 27:33) and brought many to a knowledge of Christ.
Not content simply to rectify the wrongs they had done among their own people, Ammon and his brothers were so grateful for the mercies of the Lord that they each declined an invitation to succeed their father as king of the land of Zarahemla. (See Alma 17:6.) They relinquished a worldly kingdom to labor in the kingdom of God, devoting their lives to preaching the gospel to the Lamanites, “for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.” (Mosiah 28:3.)
The faith, courage, and especially the love that this mission to the Lamanites required are a wonder to comprehend. Their fellow Nephites did not believe they could succeed and, in Ammon’s words, “laughed [them] to scorn” for even suggesting such an idea. (Alma 26:23.) Not only that, but the Nephites also proposed to Ammon that they all take up arms and destroy the Lamanites, for they greatly feared them. (See Alma 26:24–25.) And they had good reason for that fear, for as Alma says, Ammon and his brothers “had undertaken to preach the word of God to a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them.” (Alma 17:14.)
The Lamanites were not only hostile and hardened, but they had also lost almost all understanding of the Lord and his ways. King Lamoni, to whom Ammon first preached the gospel, didn’t even have an understanding of the words God and heaven. (See Alma 19:24–32.) In fact, he mistook Ammon for “the Great Spirit.” (See Alma 18:2, 4, 11.) The record further indicates that “notwithstanding they believed in a Great Spirit,” their moral system was such that “they supposed that whatsoever they did was right.” (Alma 18:5.) And the traditions of their fathers, Laman and Lemuel, still held sway over their beliefs. King Lamoni’s father, who was king over all the land of the Lamanites, called Ammon “one of the children of a liar [Nephi],” who “robbed our fathers [evidently referring to the sacred records—compare Mosiah 10:11–17]; and now his children are also come amongst us that they may, by their cunning and their lyings, deceive us, that they again may rob us of our property.” (Alma 20:10, 13.)
In the face of this deeply ingrained enmity, Ammon and his companions set out to teach the gospel to “their brethren,” the Lamanites. After journeying into the wilderness, and perhaps sensing for the first time the difficulty of their undertaking, they became discouraged and disheartened. Ammon said, “Our hearts were depressed, and we were about to turn back.” At this moment the Lord comforted them and said, “Go amongst thy brethren, the Lamanites, and bear with patience thine afflictions, and I will give unto you success.” (Alma 26:27.) Emboldened by this witness, they set out to accomplish their mission, going their separate ways into the various areas of the land inhabited by the Lamanites. Before doing so, Ammon administered to each of them, blessing them and giving them their instruction from the Lord. It is interesting to note that while Ammon apparently was not the eldest of Mosiah’s sons (the kingship was first offered to Aaron; see Mosiah 29:1–3), he was “chief among them,” possibly because of his great faith and leadership. (See Alma 17:18.)
Among the Lamanites they encountered many obstacles and endured great hardships. Ammon says that they “suffered every privation; … and we have been cast out, and mocked, and spit upon, and smote upon our cheeks; and we have been stoned, and taken and bound with strong cords, and cast into prison; … and we have suffered all manner of afflictions.” But they endured all this with patience “that perhaps we might be the means of saving some soul.” (Alma 26:28–30.)
Of Ammon’s fourteen-year sojourn among the Lamanites, Mormon chose to give us a detailed account of only one experience, Ammon’s visit to the land of Ishmael. Why he chose this one out of what must have been a rich and varied record we can only surmise, but it is hard to imagine a more dramatic example of a person accomplishing great things by putting his complete trust in the Lord. Indeed, the conversion of King Lamoni and his people, which the Lord brought about through the efforts of His servant Ammon, ranks with the great stories of faith and courage in the scriptures. Ammon is like David going against Goliath, or Joseph in the court of Pharaoh; he is like Nephi going up to Jerusalem to get the brass plates: he is the man of God courageously facing seemingly insurmountable odds that he might accomplish a righteous task.
As he entered the land of Ishmael, Ammon was bound and taken before the king. When the king asked what he wanted, Ammon replied, “I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.” (Alma 17:23.) King Lamoni was so impressed with Ammon that he offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage—an extraordinary turn of events when one considers that Ammon was a Nephite intruder among a people who traditionally had “an eternal hatred towards the children of Nephi.” (Mosiah 11:17.) What could have prompted King Lamoni to offer to draw Ammon so close to his own family? Perhaps he recognized Ammon’s royal bearing, his personal qualities, and his eagerness to serve as the attributes of an extraordinary person and one rare in any kingdom. But Ammon, having already forsaken one position of royalty, declined the offer, saying, “Nay, but I will be thy servant.” (Alma 17:25.)
As a servant, Ammon was given the task of helping to watch the king’s flocks and to feed his horses. When a band of Lamanite herdsmen scattered the flocks in hopes of stealing some of the strays for themselves (see Alma 18:6), Lamoni’s other servants feared that the king would put them to death as he had other servants (Alma 17:28); but Ammon rejoiced, for he saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of God to his “fellow-servants,” thus winning their hearts and making it possible for them to believe his words (Alma 17:29). Ammon urged the other servants to find the scattered sheep and gather them together. Once the flock was contained he told them to guard it while he went to contend with the robbers.
Again, consider Ammon’s faith: alone, with only a sling and a sword, he defended the king’s flocks against a sizable number of the enemy. Single-handedly he slew six with his sling and with his sword killed the enemy leader and cut off the arms of “not a few” of those who came against him with raised clubs. (See Alma 17:33–38.) Such a heroic display of courage and strength so impressed the other servants that they felt Ammon had supernatural powers and could not be slain.
King Lamoni, on hearing of Ammon’s feats, said, “Surely this is more than a man. Behold, is this not the Great Spirit … ?” (Alma 18:2.)
The servants, who later called Ammon “Rabbanah,” meaning “powerful or great king” (Alma 18:13), replied that they did not know whether Ammon was a man or the Great Spirit but they knew that he was “a friend to the king” (Alma 18:3).
While his heroic deeds were being recounted with enthusiasm and wonder at court, Ammon was off feeding the king’s horses. The king was as astonished by this faithful service as by the account of Ammon’s physical prowess. “Surely,” he said, “there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man.” (Alma 18:10.)
As Ammon had hoped, his faithfulness to the king resulted in an opportunity to teach him the gospel. Starting with the Creation, Ammon recounted to Lamoni the scriptural history from Adam to Lehi and from Lehi down to their own time. (See Alma 18:36–39.) When Ammon told Lamoni of the plan of redemption, Lamoni cried to the Lord for forgiveness and was “carried away in God” (Alma 19:6), falling to the earth as though dead. For two days Lamoni lay unconscious (see Alma 18:43; Alma 19:1), and then, symbolic of his spiritual resurrection, he rose on the third day to exclaim, “Blessed be the name of God. … Behold, I have seen my Redeemer” (Alma 19:12, 13). His joy was so full that he was again overpowered by the Spirit, and his testimony was so powerful that his wife, and Ammon, and his servants also fell to the earth overcome. While they were thus overcome one of Lamoni’s servants, Abish, who was a believer, saw her opportunity to help others “believe in the power of God.” (Alma 19:17.) She ran from house to house gathering the people.
Through Abish’s efforts a “multitude” was present when Ammon and the king and his household arose and testified to the astonished and perplexed citizens of Lamoni’s kingdom. They said that “their hearts had been changed; that they had no more desire to do evil” (Alma 19:33), and many believed and were converted. Thus from the powerful conversion of Lamoni the church was established among the Lamanites for the first time in more than four hundred years. So significant was Lamoni’s conversion that it led not only to the establishment of the church in the land of Ishmael but also, through its influence on his father, the king of the Lamanites in all the land of Nephi, to a much more widespread teaching of the gospel.
Like his son, Lamoni’s father was spiritually awakened by “the generosity and the greatness of the words of … Ammon.” (Alma 22:3.) Upon hearing the gospel from Ammon’s brother Aaron, he said, “I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy.” (Alma 22:15.) When Aaron invited him to ask the Lord for forgiveness, the king prayed, “I will give away all my sins to know thee.” (Alma 22:18.) Because of the king’s testimony, the queen and all the household were converted, and he sent forth a proclamation throughout his land that Ammon and his brothers were to be permitted to teach the word of God unmolested.
These events bring up an interesting point. It seems from the scriptures and also from latter-day experience that we usually find the gospel carried by the poor and humble to the poor and humble—and then to the powerful and strong, if they are to accept it at all. Ammon’s experiences are all the more unique, then, because here we have a son of a king going out and converting kings and their households first, making it then possible to take the gospel to everyone—including the poor and humble. That doesn’t happen often, especially in the modern world.
With the support of the Lamanite king, Ammon and his brothers and their companions were able to convert thousands of the Lamanites to the gospel. But what is more remarkable, “as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away.” In fact, so total was the conversion of those previously wicked and murderous Lamanites who did accept the gospel that they covenanted with the Lord that they would never again take up weapons of war, even to defend their own lives. So grateful were they for the forgiveness of their sins that they chose to suffer death, if necessary, rather than risk sinning again. (See Alma 24:5–16.) When their enemies came against them, many of these new converts were slain, but “more than a thousand” of the enemy were so moved by their faith and courage that they threw down their weapons, repented, and joined the church. (Alma 24:27.)
The extent to which Ammon’s influence on the lives of these Lamanites was recognized may be seen in the fact that shortly afterward, when they moved into the Nephites’ land of Jershon, they were called “the people of Ammon.” (Alma 27:26.) Because of “the pity and the exceeding love which Ammon and his brethren had” for the people of Ammon, they brought them down to the land of Zarahemla where they could be protected by the Nephites. (Alma 53:11–12.)
It is fitting that Ammon became a high priest over the Ammonites. (See Alma 30:20.) Having forsaken a throne to be a servant in the household of King Lamoni, and having declared that he desired to live among these people “perhaps until the day I die” (Alma 17:23), Ammon continued to serve them, presumably until the day of his death. From tending the king’s flocks and feeding his horses, Ammon rose to the highest position of spiritual leadership in that part of the land.
Near the end of their missionary journey Ammon and his brothers were reunited, and on one occasion Ammon summarized their experiences and rejoiced at their blessings, celebrating their great success among the Lamanites. (See Alma 26.) Ammon’s expression is similar in style and tone to the hymns of Moses and Deborah in the Old Testament (see Ex. 15; Judg. 5), the Magnificat in the New Testament (see Luke 2:46–55), and Nephi’s “psalm” in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Ne. 4:15–34). It is an outpouring of joy and rejoicing, an extended song of praise to God.
Ammon’s “glorying in the Lord” is replete with words and phrases that have a ring of recognition. Such phrases as “blessed be the name of our God,” “let us sing to his praise,” “let us give thanks to his holy name,” “my joy is full,” “I will rejoice in my God,” “sing redeeming love,” “we will praise him forever,” “a great and marvelous work” are only some of the phrases Ammon uses that can be found repeatedly in the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Having been a serious student of the scriptures and therefore being familiar with the language of the great poet-prophets, and having learned to seek the inspiration of the Holy Ghost (see Alma 17:2–3), Ammon voices a memorable song to the Lord.
C. S. Lewis says the image we get of the great epic poets is “the picture of a venerable figure, a king, a great warrior, or a poet inspired by the Muse, seated and chanting to the harp a poem on high matters before an assembly.” But Ammon’s poem differs from secular poetry in that its purpose is not to celebrate his own accomplishments, but God’s. Typically the epic poet made a boast of his prowess in battle or of his great deeds, but Ammon exulted in the Lord. His brother Aaron misunderstood Ammon’s great rejoicing in the things they had accomplished and rebuked him: “Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting.” (Alma 26:10.) But Ammon replied that he was not vaunting his own strength and wisdom but the Lord’s: “Therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.” (Alma 26:12.) After reviewing their successes among the Lamanites and praising God for his goodness and mercy, Ammon reiterated the fact that he was glorying in the Lord: “Now if this is boasting, even so will I boast; for this is my life and my light, my joy and my salvation, and my redemption from everlasting wo. Yea, blessed is the name of God.” (Alma 26:36.)
Mormon’s inclusion of this great poetic statement in the record preserved for our day is greatly appreciated when we consider the extent to which we have come to trust in our own strength and to take the glory for our own accomplishments. Too often we lose sight of the wonders and mysteries of God in the face of our technological and scientific discoveries. Ammon’s hymn reminds us that we owe all to God, who alone has the power to help us overcome sin and Satan’s power.
The story of Ammon speaks to those of us in Christ’s kingdom today. It reminds us that repentance takes courage and sacrifice; it inspires us to share the gospel with others, no matter how hardened their hearts nor how foreign their way of life; it teaches us that heroism inspired of God is possible for all of us and that with faith we can perform great miracles. The way is not easy, as Ammon continually reminds us, but the joy is unspeakable and the peace past understanding. Finally, Ammon reminds us that those who have tasted of the love of the Father and the Son should praise him. Again and again Ammon expressed his love to the Lord in paeans of praise and thanksgiving: “How great reason have we to rejoice” (Alma 26:1), “Let us sing his praise, yea, let us give thanks to his holy name” (Alma 26:8), “Behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God” (Alma 26:11), “Blessed be the name of my God” (Alma 26:36). Those of us who, like Alma and Ammon, have “felt to sing the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26) could well take Ammon’s concluding expression as our own: “Now this is my joy, and my great thanksgiving; yea, I will give thanks unto my God forever. Amen.”