Culture: Either this verse is simple hyperbole, or something more is going on. It is important that these are Mormon’s words, a conclusion drawn from the text in front of him. He states that the population was great—“even so many that they did not number them.” At issue may not be the quantity, but the very act of numbering. As Alison V. P. Coutts and her collaborators have noted: “Censuses were often taken in the Old Testament (Ex. 30:12; Num. 1:1–4, 26; 2 Sam. 24; 1 Chr. 21). Generally the purpose was to prepare for war, but censuses were also taken as preparation to serve God (Num. 4:1–3, 21–23). In 1 Chronicles 23, some kind of census appears to have been associated with David making his son Solomon the king, a situation somewhat analogous to Benjamin’s coronation of Mosiah.”
Mormon may be saying that a census was usually associated with this festival but that the enumeration was not done at this time. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that Benjamin, at the end of his discourse, “take[s] the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments” (Mosiah 6:1). Apparently, the traditional census was taken, not at the beginning of the festival, but at the end of Benjamin’s call to the new name and new unity.
Mormon’s description also suggests that this gathering is exceptional. The size of the crowd is emphasized both here and in Benjamin’s realization that he must build a tower. No doubt there would have been numerous public gatherings in earlier years, but this one drew a crowd that was unexpectedly large. I suggest that a plausible constellation of reasons was the coronation of a new king, the new name which represented Benjamin’s effort in forging a new society from the conflicts experienced between the Nephite and Zarahemlaites, the jubilee/new year (new “century”), and Benjamin’s proclamation at the temple site. I hypothesize that the people have already begun to work on this temple and that their collective labor will be required to complete it.
Variant: The printer’s manuscript has “that thereby they might rejoice” for verse 4. This was an accidental omission by the 1830 typesetter.