If you have grown up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, there are a few select stories from the Book of Mormon that you will know. You just will. The story of Ammon and his literally disarming conflict at the waters of Sebus is one of them. This story’s adventure is so dramatic, it is easy to overlook the lesson on faith that Mormon, the main editor for the Book of Mormon, is highlighting with this story.
The Nephite missionary Ammon went with his brothers to preach to their enemies, the Lamanites. Ammon’s first assignment from the Lamanite King Lamoni was to watch the sheep with some other servants. Unbeknownst to Ammon, this task was going to be anything but an idyllic shepherding scene from a romance painting. As they are out shepherding, another group of Lamanites scatter the sheep. Ammon is quickly made aware that losing sheep was an offense punishable by death. The difference in the reaction of the servants and Ammon is so contrasting that it is almost comical.
“Now the servants of the king began to murmur, saying: Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men. And they began to weep exceedingly, saying: Behold, our flocks are scattered already. Now they wept because of the fear of being slain…” (Alma 17:28-29).
I have never been in a situation where I could be put to death for something I have done, so I can only imagine reacting similarly. Fear is a powerful force and it is contagious, but for some reason Ammon is not only immune to their traumatic terror, he seems to be emboldened by it. His reaction is unexpected, to say the least.
“Now when Ammon saw this his heart was swollen within him with joy; for, said he, I will show forth my power unto these my fellow-servants, or the power which is in me, in restoring these flocks unto the king, that I may win the hearts of these my fellow-servants, that I may lead them to believe in my words” (Alma 17:29).
Ammon goes on to rally the other servants to gather the sheep again. When the raiders return, Ammon unhesitatingly contends with them and miraculously overcomes them in a armed conflict resulting in an armful of severed arms and some casualties from a sling. This act initiates a series of events culminating in the miraculous conversion of thousands of Lamanites. Somewhere in between the action adventure and the forcefulness of the protagonist’s larger-than-life character, Mormon is trying to teach us something.
Likely concerned that the reader could get the wrong message and simply believe that Ammon innately was just a brave person or did not feel fear, Mormon includes the reaction of King Lamoni to this dramatic event. After the king hears how Ammon took on a dozen armed combatants single handedly, he concludes that Ammon is more than human. Lest readers also come to a similar conclusion, Mormon supplies Ammon’s own words to refute this, “I am a man” (Alma 18:17, 34); just a man. Mormon later offers an explanation from Ammon, “I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; 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).
Faith is supposed to be the focus here, not Ammon. It is important to ask on what Ammon was basing his faith? If faith is a “hope for things which are not seen”, we should ask what were the promises Ammon was hoping would come true? Mormon inserted these promises within the narrative, so that this story could teach us about an active, revelation-based faith.
After Ammon and his brothers informed their father Mosiah regarding their intention to go to preach to the Lamanites, Mosiah inquired of the Lord and received this revelation:
“And the Lord said unto Mosiah: Let them go up, for many shall believe on their words, and they shall have eternal life; and I will deliver thy sons out of the hands of the Lamanites” (Mosiah 28:7).
When Ammon went to confront the raiding party of Lamanites, he did so, believing that he would be delivered by the Lord. This promise is not specific enough; however, to guarantee that he would not be harmed though. This scenario could have played out very differently for Ammon. Instead, Ammon could have been brutally beaten up, almost killed, and left for dead. The servants then, might have delivered the severely injured Ammon to the king with an account of his bravery and dedication to the king’s service. The king, impressed by Ammon’s commitment and moved with pity by his plight, might have been humbled to the point of curiosity. This could have become Ammon’s opportunity to preach the word to a prepared king. Either of these scenarios might have worked as an act of faith and could have led to the miraculous conversion of the Lamanites.
Mormon, our action-adventure tour guide, does not inform the reader, what Ammon knew. Instead, Mormon reminds the reader of this first promise through a comment on what the marauders did not know (see Alma 17:35). Of course, simply the promise that he would be “deliver[ed]…out of the hands of the Lamanites” does not explain Ammon’s extreme reaction to the scattering of the flock, when “his heart was swollen within him with joy”. This response is also beyond mere enthusiastic optimism, this is the response of someone whose hopes are about to be realized. This kind of intense satisfaction might be expected from someone who has just won a gold medal in the Olympics or a lottery jackpot.
Mormon inserts more information into the narration in the form of another promise as a way to assist the reader understand Ammon’s motivation.
Upon entering the land of the Lamanites, the missionary party prayed and received this revelation:
“Go forth among the Lamanites, thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.” (Alma 17:11)
Due to this revelation, Ammon was looking for adversity to strike. He knew that right behind the trial would be an opportunity to accomplish his heart’s desire, salvation for his brethren the Lamanites. This was a cause he was willing to give his life for, a cause he had faith would succeed. He had promises from God. He had faith based on revelation. Mormon cleverly contrasts Ammon’s faith with the other two groups of Lamanites: the raiding party who did not know about the promises, were not afraid, but should have been; and the servants who also did not know about the promises, were afraid, but did not need to be.
If we are not constantly seeking revelation, a trial may catch us unprepared as well, and we will either fear unnecessarily or act too confidently. Like Ammon, our faith is a key for unlocking miracles, but our trials generally provide the torque necessary to turn the key. Because Ammon acted on faith, the atonement enabled him to act beyond his natural powers. This additional power is defined as “grace” in the Bible Dictionary, and it is a tender mercy accessible because of Christ’s atonement. Faith precedes the miracle, but is also a miracle itself, because both are driven by atoning power. Christ is the object of our faith and its source.
Mormon uses the story of Ammon and others to define what an active faith could be. Ammon proactively sought revelation, received promises from God, very specific promises without specific details, and he acted on them. Active faith begins with seeking first the will of God. We approach him in prayer continually to ask him to reveal his will to us. We seek out personal revelation in daily scripture study. As he reveals his will to us, and we act upon his words. His revealed will to us becomes “the substance of things hoped for” by our faith (Hebrews 11:1). His revealed direction in our lives is the promises we will have faith in; it is the context to an active faith.
Ammon’s active faith led to this act of faith, and his trust in revelation revealed a miracle. The Book of Mormon encourages us again and again to do the same.