Baptism at the Waters of Mormon


by  V. Garth Norman and Alan C.Miner

A group of Nephites who fled from religious persecution at the city of Nephi to the neighboring land of Mormon entered into covenant with the Lord and were baptized into the church of Christ by Alma in the waters of Mormon (Mosiah 18:4-17).  So far as the known record goes, this momentous event gave birth to the first church of Jesus Christ to be organized in the Americas, more than a century before the coming of Christ. 

This new church focus on Christ had the same doctrine of salvation as taught in the record of Nephi, and of course still continued to practice the law of Moses as in the church from the days of Lehi and Nephi until the coming of Christ. 

The new covenant church of Christ spread rapidly when King Mosiah (as head of the church in Zarahemla) granted Alma authority to organize the church anew throughout the land. Baptism was done in the name of Jesus Christ and priesthood officers were appointed over each congregation.  Thus, the church of Christ that came from Mormon was a precursor to the coming of Christ to America to establish His church after His resurrection. 

Perhaps the land of Bountiful where Christ came was the only place in time held to be more sacred than the place of Mormon, where Alma established the church of Christ. 

Are there doctrinal, linguistic, geographic and archaeological evidences that bear on baptism and the meaning and place of Mormon to enhance our understanding and appreciation of this Book of Mormon record?     

In Mosiah 18:14 it says that after Alma had pronounced a covenant prayer of baptism, "both Alma and Helaman were buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit.  And again; Alma took another and went forth a second time into the water, and baptized him according to the first, only he did not bury himself again in the water."

Question: Where did Alma get his authority, and was Alma baptizing himself at this time?

According to Joseph Fielding Smith, "We may conclude that Alma held the priesthood before he, with others, became disturbed with King Noah ... If he had authority to baptize that is evidence that he had been baptized.  Therefore, when Alma baptized himself with Helam that was not a case of Alma baptizing himself, but merely as a token to the Lord of his humility and full repentance ...  If I remember correctly, there is no reference to the baptism of Alma the elder or Helaman nor of Nephi and his brother Jacob, but we know they were baptized as were all the faithful members in the Church."  [Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions , Vol. 3, pp. 203-204]

Alma's following as well as Limhi's people were eventually able to escape the Lamanite oppression in the land of Nephi and migrate back to Zarahemla.  Alma's divine calling to baptize was ratified when king Mosiah authorized him to organize the church throughout the land of Zarahemla (Mosiah 25: 17-19). 

According to Raymond Treat of the Zarahemla Research Foundation in Independence, Missouri; Alma's baptism was the first time in several generations that the covenant was established again among the Nephites.  From that time forward, the name "Mormon" always reminded the people of the restoration of the covenant and the establishment of Christ's church in the land of Mormon (waters of Mormon). 

Mormon, while abridging the Book of Mormon, tells us that he was not named after his father, but rather he was named after the land in which the restoration of Christ's covenant and church took place:

And behold, I am called Mormon, being called after the land of Mormon, the land in which Alma did establish the church among this people: Yea, the first church which was established among them after their transgression (3 Nephi 5:12; apostasy under king Noah).

Today, we associate the name of the Book of Mormon as did the Nephites of old, with the restoring of the covenant among the people.  The name of the book is a type for its purpose: to restore a knowledge of the covenants to the remnant of the seed of Lehi.  Therefore the name, Book of Mormon, symbolically means the Book of the Restoration of the Covenants.  [Raymond C. Treat, "Covenants: Key to the Restoration of the House of Israel," in Recent Book of Mormon Developments , Vol. 2, pp. 52-53]

A study of the title page of the Book of Mormon tells us its main purpose is to restore a knowledge of the covenants to the house of Israel.  This adds weight to the understanding that the name Mormon was always associated with the place of the restoration of the covenant to the Nephites.  In fact, the name Mormon may have become synonymous with the concept of the restoration of the covenants.  [David Lamb, "The Meaning of the Name Mormon," in Recent Book of Mormon Developments , Vol 2., p. 45] 

We should also note that the 1986 edition of the Book of Mormon added a subtitle, "Another Testament [Covenant] of Jesus Christ," which reinforces this covenant name recognition.      

In Mosiah 18:4 we read that those who believed Alma "did go forth to a place which was called Mormon, having received its name from the king, being in the borders of the land having been infested, by times or at seasons, by wild beasts."

John Tvedtnes notes that on the surface, one might suspect that it was King Noah, who reigned in Nephi in Alma's time, who had given the name Mormon to the site.  But there are other possibilities. 

Charles Eads, in an unpublished paper, has suggested that the king from whom the place received its name was a man named Mormon and that he was one of the Nephite kings who reigned in the land of Nephi before the departure of Mosiah.  Eads draws attention to the Nephite practice described in Alma 8:7: "Now it was the custom of the people of Nephi to call their lands, and their cities, and their villages, yea, even all their small villages, after the name of him who first possessed them . . ."  [John A. Tvedtnes, "Contents of the 116 Lost Pages and the Large Plates," in The Most Correct Book, p. 47] 

Where was Mormon?

Although Lake Atitlan has been presented as the prime candidate for the waters of Mormon by Joseph L. Allen and others, current studies by Garth Norman may provide evidences of a more plausible candidate for its location.   Garth has proposed a Biblical geographic archetype for naming the land and waters of Mormon from the waters of Merom ("high place," note Hebrew consonants match), located on the upper headwaters of the Jordan River near Mount Herman. 

Considering the ruins of Kaminaljuyu at Guatemala City as the city of Nephi, he proposes that the adjacent Chimaltenango valley qualifies best for the land of Mormon within a day's walk.  The beauty of this place expressed by Mormon was reiterated by explorer John Lloyd Stevens when he entered this valley in 1839.  He was so impressed by the rich valley with waters flowing from the imposing volcanic peaks that he felt there could be no more beautiful spot on the face of the earth, and imagined spending the rest of his days basking in this beautiful serenity.                                              

Norman proposes that this little valley called Almolonga is the probable place where Alma baptized and restored the church of Jesus Christ on the American continent — in the land of Mormon, "by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer." (Mosiah 18:30)

There is a curious name in this valley found no where else, given to a beautiful large spring, as well as a town — Almolonga.  I cannot help speculating that during the Christian era, Alma's name was fused in a transliteration with Mormon to memorialize this sacred place in history. [Alma = Almo, Mormon = molon;  in Nahuatl Al means "water" and moloni means "spring head." [Garth Norman, Book of Mormon — Mesoamerican Geography: History Study Map , 2008 p.13]   The photo at left is one of the many markets in Almolonga which, due to its year round warm spring water source, produces vegetable crops in the off-season for much of Latin America.

An archaeological discovery adds credence to this correlation.  Mormon bordered on Nephi and Jerusalem bordered on Mormon [see Norman-Mormon Map on AAF web site,].  The city of Jerusalem (in the land of Jerusalem) was covered by water during the destructions at the time of the crucifixion of Christ (3 Nephi 9:7).  

Lake Atitlan, north of Chimaltenango valley, is about 70 highway miles northwest of Guatemala City, and is a large beautiful lake that rose as volcanic action blocked drainage outlets.  [Note: Atitlan has been proposed as a candidate for Mormon, but the distance (140 miles round trip) seems prohibitive for Alma's secrete sabbath weekend treks with followers from Kaminaljuyu-Nephi to study the gospel.]     

According to Bruce Warren, during a period of low water in the 1930's, ruins were detected in the water off the southern shore of Lake Atitlan.  Samuel Lothrop, then with Harvard, was able to recover some ceramics that had the same style and pattern as the Miraflores ceramics from nearby Kaminaljuyu (city of Nephi) and dated from about the time of Christ, as did the ash layer immediately beneath the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador. 

Accordingly, this city in the lake was Late Classic, occupied before the time of Christ, and was covered subsequently by the rising lake waters, presumably at the time when Jerusalem was inundated.  [Bruce W. Warren and Thomas S. Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America , 1987, p. 44]  

Underwater archaeology currently exploring these intact ruins promises to yield new insights into the life of Book of Mormon peoples before Christ.

Norman, V. Garth and Miner, Alan C