Something happened to Abish.
It happened many years before the events related in Alma 19. It happened behind the scenes, offstage, outside the frame of the Book of Mormon’s own way of telling its story. And when it happened, it changed her—acutely, substantially, indelibly. It reordered some core part of her. It touched some fundament buried deep below the surface of her mind.
And, as a result, she was “converted unto the Lord” (Alma 19:16).
This is what I want to understand. This is what I want to see: this unseen moment when she was changed. I want to understand what changed her and I want to understand exactly how it changed her.
I want to know what it means to be “converted.”
This, after all, is what the previous four gospels have been promising, isn’t it? This is what Mary, Nephi, Benjamin, Abinadi, and Alma have all seen and all promised: that God is coming to save me. That God is coming to change me. That God is coming to “convert” me into something new.
But what does this mean? What does it mean to be converted? What new thing will I be?
This is a hard question. And it may be especially hard to answer for Abish because she barely flickers into view, for just a split second, at the far edge of the Book of Mormon’s field of vision.
What happens to Abish happens deep in enemy territory, outside the bounds of Nephite society. In a book centered on Nephite men, it happens to a “Lamanitish” woman (Alma 19:16). And in a book dominated by kings and armies, it happens to a “woman servant” (Alma 19:28).
But still, there she is: a flash of lightning that changes everything that follows in the Book of Mormon.
Incredibly, Abish is “converted unto the Lord” without any missionaries, without any church, without any scriptures, without any rituals or ordinances, simply “on account of a remarkable vision of her father” (Alma 19:16). And then, “having been converted to the Lord, and never having made it known” (Alma 19:17), she just continues on like that, changed but silent, redeemed but invisible.
And this, essentially, appears to be all we know about what happened to her. We know the bare minimum. We know the least we could know without knowing nothing.
But what if, in this case, the bare minimum is actually an advantage?
What if the lack of complicating variables actually makes it easier to isolate the few that matter most? Because, while we know only the bare minimum about what happened to Abish, it’s also true that she, in turn, appears to have experienced—without missionaries, churches, scriptures, or ordinances—something like the bare minimum needed for conversion. Abish may be an excellent case study in gospel minimalism.
Abish may be an excellent case study in gospel minimalism.
Clearly, Abish’s conversion left her hungry for the fullness of the gospel, and when she sees it, she recognizes it. But in the absence of that fullness, what was the minimum? What sort of change was so powerful and so essential that, even without that fullness, she counted as “converted unto the Lord”? In starvation conditions like these, what are the bare essentials?
I suspect that Abish may be a good example of what the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called an “anonymous Christian.” Or, similarly, what the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called an “unconscious Christian.” An anonymous Christian is someone who, like Abish, has been “converted unto the Lord” without knowing how to name it. Something decisive has happened to her and she’s faithful to it, but she lacks the Church’s ready-made tools—its shared scriptures and formative rituals—for sealing that change, sharing it, and making it fully conscious. She remains silent about what happened to her, at least in part, because she doesn’t know how to explain it or talk about it. She keeps it to herself because she doesn’t know how to share it.
What if, rather than first being converted to the intermediary of a religion, Abish was simply—directly, immediately—converted “unto the Lord”?
To be sure, this spare way of reading Alma 19 is only one possibility. But, to me, this angle seems worth pursuing. If we treat Abish as an unconscious Christian—as a case study in gospel minimalism—something essential may come into focus.
Take, for example, the one detail we are explicitly given about the vision that catalyzed her conversion. Abish, Mormon reports, was “converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father” (Alma 19:16; emphasis added). This is a good place to start, but as many readers have noted, it’s not clear what this curt description means. Is Mormon reporting that Abish’s father had a vision and then Abish was converted by what her father saw? Or is Mormon reporting that Abish had a vision of her father that then led to her conversion? Did Abish see something through her father’s borrowed eyes? Or did Abish see her father with her own eyes?
Both readings are viable. But as a case study in gospel minimalism, I’m inclined toward the latter. I’m inclined to see the vision as her own. I’m inclined to see her as an agent in her own story. And, if this is the case, then I’m also inclined to think it would only be natural for her unconscious conversion to be catalyzed by a vision—specifically—of her father.
We might take this as the first rough data point to be extracted from our case study: that the essence of conversion is, in some way, intertwined with family.
If conversion changes who we are in a fundamental way, then conversion must also change something fundamental about our relationships with the people we’ve depended on most, with the people whose influence has shaped our hearts and minds at the earliest and deepest levels. God couldn’t convert one without also converting the other.
Or, to frame this same point more broadly: conversion must be intertwined with family because conversion requires that we be reconciled with the necessity of our deep and ongoing dependence—both our dependence on one another, especially and originally our parents, and ultimately our dependence on God.
To be converted, we must be reconciled to the fact that we didn’t make ourselves; that we depend on others for who we are, what we want, and what we have; and that true joy is always shared. To be converted we must be reconciled to the fact that we cannot be made perfect without them, nor they without us (see Doctrine and Covenants 128:15).
To be converted, we must be reconciled to the fact that we didn’t make ourselves; that we depend on others for who we are, what we want, and what we have; and that true joy is always shared.
If this is true, then our first data point may simply be this: that conversion hinges on a dawning consciousness of our dependence.
If this vision of her father resulted in her “conversion unto the Lord,” then she must have experienced her deep dependence on God’s power and, then, a fundamental rewiring of how she pursued happiness.
Which brings me to the final testimony borne by “all the servants of Lamoni”—perhaps including Abish; why not?—at the end of Alma 19. “And it came to pass that when Ammon arose he also administered unto them, and also did all the servants of Lamoni; and they did all declare unto the people the selfsame thing—that their hearts had been changed; that they had no more desire to do evil” (Alma 19:33).
Here all the king’s servants declare “the selfsame thing”: conversion changes the heart. Conversion changes what we desire and how we desire it. Conversion fundamentally rewires—at the deepest, unconscious levels—what we want and how we pursue happiness. A changed heart—a heart or mind that has been “converted unto the Lord”—is a heart that has no more desire to do evil. A changed heart now depends on God’s will, not its own, for happiness.
A changed heart now depends on God’s will, not its own, for happiness.
This, I think, is what happened to Abish.
This is what happened behind the scenes, offstage, outside the frame of the Book of Mormon’s story. This is the essential change that qualifies Abish as a Christian—even if, before Ammon arrived, she’d never heard that word. Even if, for a time, she bore Christ’s name anonymously, unconsciously.
Something like this specific change is the bare minimum needed for conversion and redemption. And without it—without this transformative firsthand experience of my dependence on God—all the “religion” in the world can’t save me.
My own circumstances could hardly be more different from those of Abish. From the start, I’ve had all the advantages she didn’t. I was born a Christian, sealed in the covenant, destined for the priesthood, and named in the records of the Church before I could even talk or crawl. My whole life has been full of meetings and scriptures and rituals. My heart and mind were shaped at the deepest and earliest levels by my parents, their devotion to the Church, and their love of God. Without any doubt, this has been a great blessing.
Over the years, though, I’ve found myself walking the same path as Abish—but backwards. I’ve worked and studied and fasted and prayed to get back to that spare, anonymous place where she started, where she found herself converted unto the Lord, an unconscious Christian, before she could even name what had happened.
Abish started out with God and eventually found the Church.
I started out with the Church and have spent my life searching for God.
And, ironically, the closer I’ve come to the bare essentials of her anonymous Christianity—the closer I’ve come to a naked experience of the divine minimum—the more rooted I find myself in the Church and its scriptures and its rituals.