Trances in the Book of Alma
Later we read that Lamoni’s father had a similar experience when he prays to God:
O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead (Alma 22:18).
Occasionally I am asked, “What is going on with these trances in the Book of Alma? Has this sort of thing happened before?”
While I certainly have not had personal experience with this type of revelation, we can read that these types of revelatory experiences have happened elsewhere in scripture. I have found the following thoughts shared by Joseph Fielding McConkie to be helpful to those who will teach these chapters in the Book of Mormon:
Having heard of Ammon’s message, Lamoni “fell unto the earth, as if he were dead” (Alma 18:42), in which state he remained for three days. His condition was so like death that his servants insisted that his body was in a state of decay, that it stank, and that it ought to be buried. The queen refused, believing her husband to still be alive. She sent for Ammon, having been told that he was “a prophet of a holy God.” “He is not dead,” Ammon assured her “but he sleepeth in God”; and he said her husband would arise on the morrow (that being the third day). Lamoni came forth as promised, and as he did so he praised God and testified that he had seen the Redeemer. He then prophesied that the Savior would be born of a woman and would redeem from among all mankind those who would believe on his name.
At this point both he and the queen were “overpowered by the Spirit” and fell into a trance together. In like manner Ammon was also “overpowered with joy,” and thus all three had sunk to the earth”; whereupon the servants of Lamoni, those who had previously been witnesses of Ammon’s power, commenced praying in the name of the Lord, doing so with such power and faith that each of them in turn fell into the similar trance. Thus all in the court of the king had fallen into a trance save one woman by the name of Abish who had previously been converted. She commenced going from house to house telling the people of these marvelous things God had done.
This remarkable story sheds considerable light on a number of biblical texts. In both the Old and New Testaments we have instances in which the bodily functions of prophets were suspended as part of a revelatory experience. Indeed, such a state was recognized as a vehicle for receiving revelation. The first of such stories involved Balaam, who, “falling into a trance,” had “his eyes open[ed] ” that he might see “the vision of the Almighty” (Numbers 24:4, 16).
The second involved King Saul and his search for David. Having been told that David was at Ramah, Saul “sent a party of men to seize him. When they saw the company of prophets in rapture, with Samuel standing at their head, the Spirit of God came upon them and they fell into prophetic rapture. When this was reported to Saul he sent another party. These also fell into a rapture, and when he sent more men a third time, they did the same. Saul himself then set out for Ramah and came to the great cistern in Secu. He asked where Samuel and David were and was told that they were at Naioth in Ramah. On his way there the Spirit of God came upon him too and he went on, in a rapture as he went, till he came to Naioth in Ramah. There he too stripped off his clothes and like the rest fell into a rapture before Samuel and lay down naked all that day and all that night. That is why men say, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?'” (New English Bible, 1 Samuel 19:20-24.)
We read of Ezekiel being transported by the Spirit to Tell-abib, near the river Chebar, where he apparently remained in a trance for seven days. At the end of that period the word of the Lord came to him. (See Ezekiel 3:14-17.) (The appropriate word to describe his state seems most difficult to find. For instance, the King James Version renders it “astonished”; the New English Bible, “dumbfounded”; the Jersualem Bible, “stunned”; the Moffat, “overwhelmed.”) The “hand of the Lord” falls on him, and he sees the “visions of God,” hears the voice of the Almighty, is “lifted up between the earth and the heaven,” and passes from the river of Chebar to the Lord’s house in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:1-3).
In the context of the New Testament we read that Peter “fell into a trance, and saw the heaven opened,” whereupon the revelation of matchless importance was given which extended the blessings of the gospel to Gentiles as well as to Jews (see Acts 10:10-11; see also Acts 11:5). And it is significant that Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, received his call to that labor in a similar state. “While I prayed in the temple,” he testified, “I was in a trance; and saw [the Lord] saying unto me, Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me…. And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.” (Acts 22:7, 21.) Paul’s writings suggest that he had other experiences of like nature. “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord,” he said. “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter.” (2 Corinthians 12:1-4.
From what we can deduce from scriptural writ, it appears that a trance is a state in which the body and its functions become quiescent in order that the full powers of the Spirit may be centered on the revelations of heaven. Freed from the fetters of a mortal body, man’s spirit can be ushered into the divine presence; it can hear what otherwise could not be heard and see what otherwise could not be seen-even the visions of eternity and even the Almighty himself. Yet the trance, like all other spiritual experiences, is subject to counterfeiting. Such counterfeits were common, for instance, to the frontier camp meetings of the United States. The trance might be likened to another medium of revelation, namely that of the gift of tongues, which was also commonly mimicked at the camp meetings and in many other settings. None would question tongues as a legitimate gift of heaven, and likewise there is no question that the gift of tongues has been and is often counterfeited.
Though a trance is not sufficient proof of true religion, it certainly does not militate against it, as the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and the Book of Mormon attest. It is of interest that the false prophet Shemaiah wrote to the priest Zephaniah, charging him to keep the temple a house of order by putting the mad prophets in prison and in stocks. His reference to mad prophets is understood to have been directed to those prophets who claimed authority through some ecstasy or trance. His purpose in so doing was to have the prophet Jeremiah imprisoned, it being well known that Jeremiah made claim to such experienced (See Jeremiah 29:26-27.)
The story of Ammon and Lamoni affirms religious trances as a legitimate revelatory device. Lamoni, as already noted, came forth from his trance testifying that he had seen the Redeemer and then prophesied relative to the Savior’s birth and the necessity of all mankind believing on his name. The testimony of his servants was that while they were in this state of physical insensibility, angels instructed them in the principles of salvation and their obligation to live righteously. Indeed, they experienced a change of heart and no longer had a desire to do evil. Such is the state in which the power of God overcomes the “natural frame” and one is “carried away in God.” The test of the legitimacy of the religious trance, like that of tongues is the efficacy of its purpose. Its genuineness must be ascertained by the same standards that determine the verity of revelation in all other forms-that is, by the asking of such questions as: Does it teach faith in Christ, repentance sacrifice, obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel, and loyalty to the Lord’s current and constituted Church and his anointed servants?
Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, volume 3, p. 138-141.