“They Believed in a Great Spirit”

Brant Gardner

Verse 5 continues to process the possible meaning of Ammon’s appearance. Lamoni now sees a connection between Ammon’s efforts and the fate of previous servants—the fate that would have awaited the current servants. As he contemplates the situation, he acknowledges his own guilt in executing the servants who had failed at this particular task. Extreme punishment of servants who cannot carry out their lord’s wishes is not at all unusual in various world cultures in which a monarch is seen as supreme. Because Lamoni so quickly connects Ammon with saving the servants, it seems likely that his conscience has been troubling him, even though he does not say so.

The term “Great Spirit” may very well reflect Joseph’s familiarity with Native American traditions in his own day, since this term was used commonly in English translations for Native American deities, though all tribes had rather more specific names for deity. Lamoni would probably have named a particular god. Nevertheless, something about that deity could be defined as “spirit” since Ammon will build on that point.

Mormon spells out that the Lamanites, despite their belief in the Great Spirit, “supposed that whatsoever they did was right”—including the extreme step of executing perhaps incompetent but certainly not treasonous servants. But in point of fact, virtually all people suppose “that whatsoever they [do is] right.” We all have our definitions about how things ought to be, and we assume that our way must be the right way. Mormon certainly holds such feelings about his own culture but does not recognize that he falls in the same category himself; after all, he assumes that it is obvious that the “Nephite way” really is right.

Also of interest in Lamoni’s connection between Ammon’s feats and Lamoni’s fear that he had done wrong in slaying his servants is the fact that such slaying apparently constituted a court controversy. The possibility of punishment for these slayings comes up again in Alma 19:20. In other words, if slaying the servants was a repeated event and everyone knew it, then Lamoni was intentionally sending Ammon, an unusual enemy who wanted unaccountably to be a friend, into danger. Lamoni’s motivations are now clearer. He intentionally placed Ammon where he would either disrupt the political situation (which would benefit Lamoni) or he would be executed (which removed the problem of the friendly enemy).

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 4