The Book of Mormon: A Primer for Priesthood Leadership
RoseAnn Benson, “The Book of Mormon: A Primer for Priesthood Leadership,” Religious Educator 4, no. 2 (2003): 57–67.
RoseAnn Benson was a part–time instructor of ancient scripture and Church history and doctrine at BYU when this was written.
One of the greatest challenges a priesthood holder faces is how to use God’s power and authority appropriately. According to Doctrine and Covenants 121:39, a common tendency among men is to exercise power and authority unrighteously. The consequence of unrighteous dominion is the loss of God’s Spirit and power and thus the inspiration needed for righteous leadership. Because God respects moral agency, liberty, and accountability (see 2 Nephi 2:26–27; D&C 101:78), so must a priesthood holder in order to receive guidance from the Spirit. Robert Ingersoll wisely noted: “Nothing discloses real character like the use of power: It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power.”
Christ’s ministry is the perfect example of the righteous use of priesthood power. In obedience to His Father, He said, “Thy will be done” (Moses 4:2). During His mortal life, He loved even sinners and exhorted them to “sin no more” (John 8:11). In contrast, when Lucifer sought God’s throne for himself, he proposed, without the requisite right, power, or authority, that he could redeem all (see Moses 4:1). He claimed he would save all regardless of their works and consequently their desires; righteousness or wickedness was irrelevant. Lucifer became the icon for unrighteous dominion, the desire to control another.
Elder H. Burke Peterson describes how a man worthily endowed with the priesthood, whom he called the “Man of Power,” righteously uses priesthood power:
This power [the priesthood] from heaven is the power to bless, to strengthen, to heal, to comfort, to bring peace to a household. . . .
- The Man of Power is one who presides—
- By persuasion. He uses no demeaning words or behavior, does not manipulate others, appeals to the best in everyone, and respects the dignity and agency of all humankind—men, women, boys, and girls.
- By long—suffering. He waits when necessary and listens to the humblest or youngest person. He is tolerant of the ideas of others and avoids quick judgments and anger.
- By gentleness. He uses a smile more often than a frown. He is not gruff or loud or frightening; he does not discipline in anger.
- By meekness. He is not puffed up, does not dominate conversations, and is willing to conform his will to the will of God.
- By love unfeigned. He does not pretend. He is sincere, giving honest love without reservation even when others are unlovable.
- By kindness. He practices courtesy and thoughtfulness in little things as well as in the more obvious things.
- By pure knowledge. He avoids half—truths and seeks to be empathetic.
- Without hypocrisy. He practices the principles he teaches. He knows he is not always right and is willing to admit his mistakes and say “I’m sorry.”
- Without guile. He is not sly or crafty in his dealings with others, but is honest and authentic when describing his feelings.
The attributes of a righteous priesthood holder—peaceable, patient, gentle, humble, kind, honest, and loving—are like those of Christ and are identified in Galatians as “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). President Spencer W. Kimball added, “We must be selfless and give service, be thoughtful and generous. Our dominion must be a righteous dominion.”
Two examples from the Book of Mormon illustrate this style of leadership and stewardship in worthy men who bear the holy priesthood. The first example reveals the relationship of patriarch and prophet Lehi with his wife, Sariah, during a time of stress and difficulty; the second shows the future prophet, Nephi, chastising and forgiving his rude and rebellious brothers after their attempt to take his life. From these two examples we learn how to encourage another to develop his or her testimony, how to make a peaceful existence with siblings, and how to resolve conflict when sin is involved.
Nephi’s narrative shows his high regard for his mother and father (see 1 Nephi 1:1). In 1 Nephi 5, he shares an intimate and poignant glimpse of his mother, Sariah. From Nephi’s vantage point, we not only see the deep feelings of love that Sariah has for her family but also her struggles in obtaining a testimony of what her family had been called by God to do. In Jerusalem, perhaps she could easily recognize the apostasy surrounding them of which Lehi testified, but in the wilderness when his message involved danger to her sons, she expressed doubt that his words came from God.
After Lehi, Sariah, and their family left Jerusalem, Lehi sent his sons back to Jerusalem for the brass plates. While Nephi and his brothers were retrieving the brass plates, Sariah yielded to her maternal fears. Perhaps the trip took longer than she anticipated, exacerbating her already natural worries. Perhaps after several weeks in the wilderness, a woman used to the comforts of a home wondered what had possessed her to flee Jerusalem with few, if any, of her material possessions or to allow her sons—her most prized treasures—to return to a land where its people had persecuted and tried to kill her husband (see 1 Nephi 1:20).
Sariah mourned the loss of her sons, “for she had supposed that we had perished in the wilderness,” and complained against Lehi, “telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 5:2). Lehi, a righteous patriarch holding the priesthood of God, responded first by agreeing with Sariah, saying, “I am a visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren” (1 Nephi 5:4). While Lehi had confidence in his sons’ safety because of what God had revealed to him, he recognized that hardship would challenge the faith of one not privy to the same vision.
Lehi could have appealed to priesthood authority and his role as a prophet in an attempt to control Sariah and achieve his ends. He could have used his superior physical strength to squelch her complaints. He could have misconstrued scriptural passages, criticized her, or in some other way ridiculed her fears and coerced her into silence. Instead, he reverenced her motherhood and attendant concerns for her sons. He recognized her sacrifice. As President Howard W. Hunter said, “Mothers perform a labor the priesthood cannot do. For this gift of life, the priesthood should have love unbounded for the mothers of their children.” Lehi demonstrated respect and love for his wife by treating her as an important and necessary partner whose concerns needed to be addressed “in love and kindness and with a spirit of mutual reconciliation.” First, he counseled with Sariah about his vision from God. President Hunter underscored the importance of a husband and wife counseling together when he said, “For a man to operate independently of or without regard to the feelings and counsel of his wife in governing the family is to exercise unrighteous dominion.” President Gordon B. Hinckley reiterated this point in his October 2001 address to priesthood holders: “Any man who is a tyrant in his own home is unworthy of the priesthood. He cannot be a fit instrument in the hands of the Lord when he does not show respect and kindess and love toward the companion of his choice.” Because Lehi was respectful and loving as he counseled with Sariah, he made it easy for her to be receptive to his crucial second point, his testimony. Without his empathy, she may not have listened further, and his testimony would have fallen on deaf ears. Through bearing his testimony, Lehi implied that Sariah too could gain her own witness.
President Kimball offered priesthood holders advice that reflects Lehi’s example: “Our sisters do not wish to be indulged or to be treated condescendingly; they desire to be respected and revered as our sisters and our equals. I mention all these things, my brethren, not because the doctrines or the teachings of the Church regarding women are in any doubt, but because in some situations our behavior is of doubtful quality.” Seen in this way, Lehi’s compassionate words acknowledged Sariah’s misgivings and demonstrated righteous, Spirit—sensitive leadership.
Because Lehi exercised his “power or influence . . . only by persuasion, by long—suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge . . . and without guile” (D&C 121:41–42), Sariah’s heart was open to the prompting of the Spirit. Doubtless she had been praying fervently, but Lehi helped create an environment conducive to her receiving the much—needed hope that his words were true. Not only did Lehi testify of a promised land for his family but, more importantly for Sariah, he reassured her that Jehovah was watching over them, for he said, “I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 5:5). Lehi wisely did not use his position of authority to ignore her, minimize her fears, or silence her. Domination by authority as the sole basis for control is tyranny, the antithesis of “just and holy principles” ordained by God (D&C 101:77). Upon the sons’ return, Lehi and Sariah were filled with great joy (see 1 Nephi 5:1). Her testimony now strengthened, Sariah affirmed that her visionary husband was a prophet of God and that her sons had been preserved by Jehovah. Sariah’s rejoicing took the form of a testimony, twice repeating the familiar words “I know” (see 1 Nephi 5:8). Just as her son Nephi knew “that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7), Sariah testified, “Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them” (1 Nephi 5:8). We can almost picture the whole family gathered together at an altar as Lehi and Sariah made offerings of appropriate sacrifices, joyfully thanking Jehovah for His tender mercy and care (see 1 Nephi 5:9). The furnace of affliction tested Sariah’s faith, and she emerged with new strength, resilience, and an unshakable testimony of Jehovah’s love for her family.
God needs both strong men and women, armed with understanding and testimony of Him and His ways. Through the comfort and guidance of a righteous Melchizedek Priesthood holder and by the power of the Holy Ghost, Sariah gained a personal spiritual knowledge to see her through the difficult times ahead. She became a new and powerful witness who could testify of Christ and of her husband’s calling.
While Lehi’s interactions with his wife did not involve rebellion and sin on her part, rebellion, jealousy, anger, and sin shaped the lives of two of their sons (see 1 Nephi 7). As older siblings to Nephi, they suffered from a mistaken entitlement expectation: that priesthood authority and leadership are based on birth order rather than on righteousness, faithfulness, and designation by God. Such unbridled sibling rivalry provided an easy entry point for the sins of self—justified anger, rebellion, and even murderous conspiracy. Resolving, if it is possible, such devastatingly divisive family problems righteously requires respect for agency; forgiveness comes when sinners choose to repent. To help a person caught in sin, the priesthood holder must follow God’s plan for righteous leadership. In this story, Nephi is a young man, a prophet—in—training, who is learning by following the example of his father and the promptings of the Spirit.
The four oldest sons of Lehi and Sariah obeyed the command to return a second time to Jerusalem to bring Ishmael’s family. A survey of Laman and Lemuel’s short—lived “repentant” response to prophetic counsel as well as sacred ministrations indicates they never developed the requisite faith in God to learn true obedience. Thus, their obedience in returning to Jerusalem was likely because they would benefit by receiving a wife. Not surprisingly, as it was their pattern of behavior, Laman and Lemuel, on the return trip to the Red Sea wilderness encampment, led a rebellion against their younger brothers Sam and Nephi as well as against Ishmael, his wife, and three of their daughters concerning where they should go (see 1 Nephi 2:12; 3:31; 7:6–7). Laman and Lemuel wished to return to city life in Jerusalem, while Sam and Nephi wanted to return to Lehi’s camp.
Even before Nephi returned to Jerusalem the first time for the brass plates, the Lord recognized his faith, diligence, and humility and consequently promised Nephi that he would be made a ruler and teacher over his brothers (see 1 Nephi 2:19, 22). On the first trip back to Jerusalem, Nephi demonstrated why the Lord entrusted him with leadership responsibilities. He persuaded his brothers to accept an oath, binding them all to obtain the plates as they had been commanded (see 1 Nephi 3:15). Later, an angel informed Laman, Lemuel, and Sam that the Lord had chosen Nephi to rule over them (see 1 Nephi 3:29). Nephi further exemplified his leadership capabilities by obtaining the plates in a miraculous manner, being “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do” (1 Nephi 4:6).
Thus, on this second trip to Jerusalem, Nephi was fulfilling his leadership assignment when he said, “Behold ye are mine elder brethren, and how is it that ye are so hard in your hearts, and so blind in your minds, that ye have need that I, your younger brother, should speak unto you, yea, and set an example for you?” (1 Nephi 7:8). We sense his deep disappointment in his older brothers’ hard hearts and closed minds and his awkward feelings at having to chastise them. Nevertheless, a close examination of the narrative illustrates that Nephi had watched his father carefully. While in the desert, Lehi exhorted Laman to be continually righteous and taught Lemuel to be firm, steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of God. When Laman and Lemuel continued to murmur and complain, Lehi spoke to them by the power of the Spirit “until their frames did shake before him. And he did confound them” (1 Nephi 2:9–14). Following his father’s example, Nephi, as directed by the Spirit, reproved his brothers for their rebellion and warned them of danger in following their own course.
The entire focus of his chastisement was an exhortation to remember the Lord and to return to Him (see 1 Nephi 7:9–21). The Spirit constrained Nephi to warn his brothers that if they returned to Jerusalem, they would perish. Nevertheless, the choice was theirs. They could return to Jerusalem, but the Lord would not allow them to injure Nephi and those who desired to return with him to his father’s tent by the borders of the Red Sea. Unfortunately, Nephi’s words only exacerbated the feelings of hatred his older siblings had for him.
Laman and Lemuel responded angrily to the words of Nephi and not only bound him with cords but also determined to leave their younger brother in the wilderness to be eaten by wild animals (see 1 Nephi 7:16). By the power of Nephi’s faith, his bands were miraculously loosened, and Nephi stood again before his brothers to persuade them to change their minds (see 1 Nephi 7:17–18). Through the intercession of righteous women, the hearts of Laman and Lemuel were softened, strife and contention ceased, and the two men recognized the wickedness they had contemplated (see 1 Nephi 7:19). As the older brothers bowed before Nephi and asked forgiveness, Nephi recorded simply, “I did frankly forgive them all they had done, and I did exhort them that they would pray unto the Lord their God for forgiveness” (1 Nephi 7:20–21).
Nephi followed his reproof by an expression of great love toward his brothers. His complete forgiveness of gross sin, even an attempt to take his life, indicates an astonishing level of charity (see 1 Nephi 7:21). In directing priesthood holders, the Lord said, “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy” (D&C 121:43). “Betimes” means early, soon, and before it is too late. “Sharpness” means keenness of point and connotes a precise reproof, directed specifically to the point of error. When we have this understanding in mind, one interpretation of ancient Near Eastern talionic laws makes sense. Punishment should be precisely appropriate to the crime, no more and no less. Alma teaches this same principle to his son Corianton in a discourse on the law of restoration. It is “requisite with the justice of God” and part of the “proper order” of all things to restore precisely what a person has earned (see Alma 41). The Doctrine and Covenants in section 121prescribes how priesthood holders are to exercise this law with those for whom they have responsibility: chastise immediately, justly, and lovingly as directed by the Sprit. Further, President Brigham Young wisely counseled, “You must learn to know when you have chastised enough. . . .If you are ever called upon to chasten a person, never chasted beyond the balm you have within you to bind up. . . .when you have the chastening rod in your hands, ask God to give you wisdom to use it, that you may not use it to the destruction of an individual, but to his salvation.” Despite Nephi’s best efforts, his charity, and his Spirit—directed reproach, he could not make his brothers desire true repentance and obedience.
Throughout the book of 1 Nephi, Laman and Lemuel ride a spiritual seesaw. One moment they are rebellious, accusing Nephi of usurping their rightful positions of authority and contemplating his murder, and the next they fear for their lives and “repent” as a result of a miraculous display of God’s power. Laman and Lemuel’s erratic behavior provides a sharp contrast to the steadiness of Lehi and Nephi, whose examples serve as anchors in a turbulent sea of sin, thus enabling us to more clearly discern righteous priesthood leadership.
Some of Lehi’s last words to Laman and Lemuel corroborate Nephi’s righteous leadership:
Ye have accused him [Nephi] that he sought power and authority over you; but I know that he hath not sought for power nor authority over you, but he hath sought the glory of God, and your own eternal welfare. . . .
Ye say that he hath used sharpness; ye say that he hath been angry with you; but behold, his sharpness was the sharpness of the power of the word of God, which was in him; and that which ye call anger was the truth, according to that which is in God, which he could not restrain, manifesting boldly concerning your iniquities. . . .
It was not he, but it was the Spirit of the Lord which was in him, which opened his mouth to utterance that he could not shut it. (2 Nephi 1:25–27)
Lehi testified that Nephi’s power and authority came from God and that his chastisements had been bold, truthful, and directed by the Spirit.
The underlying principle of Doctrine and Covenants 121:34–44 is that proper use of priesthood authority respects agency and at the same time exhorts to faith and obedience under the direction of the Spirit. In the Lord’s eyes, agency is sacred. Because of His role in the creation, His atoning sacrifice, and the divine investiture given Him by His Father, Christ is our sovereign, the keeper of the gate, and the only one with the right to have dominion over us (see 2 Nephi 9:41; Mosiah 3:8, 11; 15:1–3). Nevertheless, He has allowed us agency to choose “liberty and eternal life” or “captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27). In His role as God, He created all things, “both things to act and things to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14). Dominion to act was given to both Adam and Eve over the plant and animal kingdoms, those “things to be acted upon.” Further, the Lord specifically stated that because of the Atonement, we “have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for [our]selves and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26). Adam was given the responsibility to preside righteously in the family (see Genesis 3:16; Moses 4:22; 1 Corinthians 11:3). This responsibility has strict boundaries, however, for even God refuses to control us.
Men and women are peers with responsibilities to lead and assist each other in various capacities. In the proclamation on the family, the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles declare that in the sacred responsibilities of providing for the family and nurturing children, “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” For example, President Hunter stated, “Presiding in righteousness necessitates a shared responsibility between husband and wife; together you act with knowledge and participation in all family matters.” President Boyd K. Packer indicated that the relationship between husband and wife is horizontal rather than vertical or hierarchical. Recognizing this side—by—side partnership encourages counseling together. Elder Spencer J. Condie called counseling together “one of the greatest safeguards against a disposition toward unrighteous dominion.” Our Heavenly Father’s plan for the patriarchal order of the Melchizedek Priesthood is one of order—of delegation and stewardship—not subordination.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” Thus, priesthood leaders give proper direction and then allow individuals to choose their own course of action. The right to choose was given by God long ago; however, the choice of consequences was not. The rebellion in heaven was a war about ideologies: choice versus compulsion, inspired leadership versus unrighteous dominion. Usurping freedom by the use of unrighteous dominion is a short—term tactic that engenders resentment and eventually resistance. Ultimately, it will fail. Love and loyalty, essential features of God’s plan, can thrive only with agency. Righteous priesthood holders do not need to demand followers; as with Jesus, good people are drawn to such men and come willingly.
Elder Tad R. Callister wrote, “It should be no surprise that as we become more Godlike we become more powerful.” Thus, the “Man of Power” is a priesthood holder who has exercised power in righteousness and will continue to aquire more power because of his righteousness.
Lehi, a prophet of God, and Nephi, a prophet—in—training, demonstrate how priesthood power has bounds that God has set and to which righteous men must adhere. The God—given and essential principle of agency must be cherished and respected, regardless of how right we are and how wrong those we are called to lead are. Although both Lehi and Nephi exercised righteous leadership, only Lehi succeeded in helping a family member turn back to God. Nephi’s righteousness and adherence to correct principles did not guarantee another’s repentance or permit Nephi to override the agency of his rebellious brothers. The crucial factor in Lehi and Nephi’s success or failure lay in the spiritual condition of the individuals they counseled, not their priesthood authority.
Clearly, Lehi and Nephi exemplify righteous priesthood holders who demonstrate why they were not only called but also chosen (see D&C 121:36–40). Through their examples, we have a clear contrast to unrighteous dominion, the attempt to control another. Righteous leadership demonstrates love unfeigned or charity, the perfect love that Christ possesses (see Moroni 7:47). Thus, the Book of Mormon acts as a primer for priesthood leadership by illustrating how the Spirit can teach receptive individuals to lead like Christ.
 Robert G. Ingersoll, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: The Ingersoll League, 1929), 3:172.
 H. Burke Peterson, “Unrighteous Dominion,” Ensign, July 1989, 10.
 Spencer W. Kimball, in Conference Report, October 1979, 71.
 Although Lehi and Nephi lived in a dispensation in which the Melchizedek Priesthood had been taken from the general membership of the house of Israel, Lehi, as a prophet of God, held this higher priesthood and ordained others to it (see D&C 84:17, 25; 1 Nephi 1:5–13). Lehi’s throne theophany demonstrates that he was called to be a prophet of God and thus was a holder of the Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God. Further, since no Levites were in Nephi’s company, only the Melchizedek Priesthood could have been held. Joseph Smith taught, “All the prophets had the Melchizedek Priesthood and were ordained by God himself” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976], 181).
 Camille Fronk, “Desert Epiphany: Sariah and the Women in 1 Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 2 (2000): 8–9.
 Fronk, “Desert Epiphany,” 9–10.
 Fronk, “Desert Epiphany,” 10.
 The Hebrew words yimashal-bach have been translated “he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). In general, Old Testament usage of the root word mashal reinforces notions of the divine creation of the world with God delegating to mortals power to exercise dominion. Since dominion originates as part of the divine governing order, i connotes the function of serving God. For example, the sun and moon rule over the day and night and serve God as His “world clock.” God gave Adam and Eve dominion over all the animal kingdom, meaning they are to serve Him as gamekeepers “ruling over” all that moves (see Genesis 1:28; see also G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans’ Publishing, 1974], 9:64–67). Thus, “rule” is based on power delegated from the supreme ruler, God, and is connected with serving Him and the assigned stewardship.
 Larry K. Langlois, “Marriage without Manipulation,” Ensign, March 1987, 42–45.
 Howard W. Hunter, in Conference Report, October 1994, 67–68.
 Hunter, in Conference Report, October 1994, 67–68.
 Hunter, in Conference Report, October 1994, 68.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, in Conference Report, October 2001, 65.
 Kimball, in Conference Report, October 1979, 72.
 “If authority were the sole basis for control of individuals, families, quorums, auxiliaries, churches, nations, or the world, then difficulties would soon be everywhere. Authority alone—without any other virtue—is simply dictatorship” (Arlyn L. Jesperson, “Learning to Lead Our Family—’Without Compulsory Means,’” Ensign, April 1983, 53).
 Fronk suggests that “Lehi and Sariah together performed this sacred act of worship” (Fronk, “Desert Epiphany,” 11).
 See S. Kent Brown, “Lehi’s Sacrifices in the Wilderness,” in Insights: Window on the Ancient World 21, no. 9 (2001): 2–3.
 Fronk, “Desert Epiphany,” 10.
 See, for example, Nephi 2:11–14, 16, 18; 3:29–31. This pattern continues; see also 1 Nephi 16:1–5, 20, 35–39.
 Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed. s.v. “betimes.”
 Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed. s.v. “sharpness.”
 Talionic law, or lex talionis, is the law of retaliation and requires that punishment be quantitatively and qualitatively proportionate. For more information on this topic, see Bernard S. Jackson, Studies in the Semiotics of Biblical Law (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 271–97.
 Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 9:124–25.
 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, November 1995, 02.
 Hunter, in Conference Report, October 1994, 68.
 Boyd K. Packer, in Conference Report, April 1998, 96.
 Spencer J. Condie, “A Disposition to Do Good Continually,” Ensign, August 2001, 18.
 Millennial Star, 15 November 1851, 339.
 Langlois, “Marriage without Manipulation,” Ensign, March 1987, 45.
 Tad R. Callister, The Infinite Atonement (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 68.