Alma 4

In the past few chapters, we’ve had considerable conflict centred principally on those who’d rejected the Church and embraced the false teachings of Nehor. However, lest we think mere Church membership grants us immunity from human ills, what we have in this chapter are problems caused within the Church:

And it came to pass in the eighth year of the reign of the judges, that the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in all these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel.

(Alma 4:6)

A recurring theme in the Book of Mormon, as we shall see, is how prosperity can lead to pride, and pride be the “gateway” for further wickedness. As this chapter clearly shows, members of the Church are by no means immune to these temptations.

Now this was the cause of much affliction to Alma, yea, and to many of the people whom Alma had consecrated to be teachers, and priests, and elders over the church; yea, many of them were sorely grieved for the wickedness which they saw had begun to be among their people.

For they saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.

And thus, in this eighth year of the reign of the judges, there began to be great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride, even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God.

And thus ended the eighth year of the reign of the judges; and the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.

(Alma 4:7-10)

Pride here causes members of the Church to set their hearts upon riches, to mistreat each other, and to lead to “great contentions”, “envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions”. Perhaps most damning of all is that last phrase, speaking of the pride of these members, which did “exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God”. Simple membership alone does not confer virtue, and in this case it seems things had become so bad that many members were worse than those outside, despite the fact that they’d presumably been taught against such things. I found that quite something to think about (and that this became “a great stumbling-block” and “the church began to fail in its progress” seems inevitable under the circumstances.

However, I also found Alma’s reaction interesting. I’ve read these passages many times before, so there’s not any plot elements, so to speak, that come as a surprise. So I’ve had the opportunity to read many times of Alma giving up the office of chief judge (to Nephihah, vv. 16-17), and keeping the office of high priest (incidentally separating them once again), so that:

… he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.

(Alma 4:19)

Upon reading it this time, however, I was struck by the fact that for many of us, giving up an office in these circumstances may have felt like a failure. We tend to look upon such things as accomplishments, or opportunities for accomplishments, and so simply giving up the office in this way may feel like a confession of inadequacy. Likewise, many people seeking to make changes in the world seek political office and power: Alma, seeking to make a change, had political power and gave it up. Moreover, as I think the subsequent chapters show, he was right to do so. It’s perhaps an example to reflect upon when we consider what constitutes failure and inadequacy on one hand, and on what we should be doing if we seek change too on the other.

Alma 3

This chapter covers some of the aftermath of the brief war in chapter two. Perhaps most notable is the discussion of the “mark”, which can be a controversial area. It’s perhaps best remembered to begin with that this is concerned with several ancient, closely-related, groups (indeed, termed “brethren” in this very chapter), not commentary on modern ethnic groups. Furthermore, it was something to apparently hinder cultural contamination (as in verse 8, “that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction”), and it is clear from the overall arc of the Book of Mormon – from Jacob’s commentary on Nephite and Lamanite family relationships, to the various conversions backwards and forth, to the final end of the book, and beyond – that it is not a determinant nor an indicator of individual righteousness.

But this chapter also adds an interesting kink to the whole issue. The Amlicites have defected, both politically (in that they’ve affiliated with the Lamanites), and religiously, in that they’ve not only separated from the Church, but actively fought violently against it and cut themselves off from the Nephite religious tradition. They thus too receive a mark:

Now we will return again to the Amlicites, for they also had a mark set upon them; yea, they set the mark upon themselves, yea, even a mark of red upon their foreheads.

Thus the word of God is fulfilled, for these are the words which he said to Nephi: Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed, and I will set a mark on them that they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed, from this time henceforth and forever, except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me that I may have mercy upon them.

And again: I will set a mark upon him that mingleth his seed with thy brethren, that they may be cursed also.

And again: I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee and thy seed.

And again, I say he that departeth from thee shall no more be called thy seed; and I will bless thee, and whomsoever shall be called thy seed, henceforth and forever; and these were the promises of the Lord unto Nephi and to his seed.

Now the Amlicites knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God when they began to mark themselves in their foreheads; nevertheless they had come out in open rebellion against God; therefore it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them.

(Alma 3:13-18)

The Amlicites have met the conditions: they’ve “mingled” with the Lamanites, fought against the Nephites and separated themselves from the Nephites. But the mark is one that they actually place upon themselves. And yet, despite the fact that this is a self-imposed, temporary cosmetic marking, this is considered a fulfilment of prophecy. This is interesting from the perspective of how literally we understand any such “marks” in the first place, and for realising that the Nephites too (or at least the authors of the Book of Mormon) could understand such things in a less strictly literal sense than some have understood.

It’s also significant that the Amlicites did this themselves, doubtless thinking it was an act they did entirely for their own benefit, out of wilfulness, and yet it fulfilled divine prediction and marked them out as recipients of a divine curse. Verse 19 extends this to a general principal.

Now I would that ye should see that they brought upon themselves the curse; and even so doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation.

Thinking about it, it’s interesting to the extent that this is true of the Lamanites themselves, the threat being that “inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord” (1 Nephi 2:21). And indeed they were: when – after Lehi’s death – Laman and Lemuel conspired to kill Nephi and Nephi fled, they drove out the one who had the gift of prophecy, and he took with him the plates of brass which contained the written word of God available to them. Their murderous intentions thus cut themselves off God. There will be other examples to come in the Book of Mormon, and it’s interesting to think about. While – contrary to some misguided notions – God does, and more especially will, punish sinners (2 Nephi 2:10, Alma 42:16-18, D&C 19:10-12, 2 Nephi 23:11//Isaiah 13:11), very often it is the consequences of those sins themselves that bring their own punishment into our lives. I don’t know if that is always the case (or there’d be little need for divine intervention on that score), but I think it’s observable on many occasions, so that sometimes we – much like the Amlicites, unwittingly – can be our own worst enemy.

Alma 2

It’s war (well, the first one)!

It’s interesting that there’s a number of things which come to a head here: there’s been the change from a monarchy to the system of judges, there’s been the development of  Church as institutionally separate from the apparatus of the state, and other religious factions – the order of Nehor – have developed as well. Now we have a figure, Amlici, who follows the order of Nehor, whose followers seek to make king (re-instituting monarchy), and who would use that power to destroy the Church (vv. 1-4). Considering that the chief judge, Alma, was himself seeking to destroy the church before his conversion (and incidentally, his election), it might have been a curious situation for him to reflect him. Things being just a bit different, Alma the younger could easily have been the one to occupy Amlici’s role.

I find that interesting to think about: while it seems clear that events this chapter are driven by reactions to wider social changes (both in the political and religious sphere, and the Lamanite invasion is unlikely to be spur of the moment), what part individuals play in such events is down very much to that individual. And individual choices made earlier (Alma’s to repent, for instance), can also have a great influence on those big events that otherwise seem too big for us to deal with.

On a personal note, I also simply just like the scene in which – after the Amlicites and Lamanites ambush the Nephite army while it’s crossing the river Sidon – Alma fights Amlici and then Lamanite king’s guards, clearing the bank for his army to cross. Perhaps I’m easily pleased by superficial things, but I find that sort of thing awesome. But it’s also another demonstration that as much as big events can be driven by factors bigger than any person, and may be unavoidable, that one man in the right place can still make a difference:

And behold, as they were crossing the river Sidon, the Lamanites and the Amlicites, being as numerous almost, as it were, as the sands of the sea, came upon them to destroy them.

Nevertheless, the Nephites being strengthened by the hand of the Lord, having prayed mightily to him that he would deliver them out of the hands of their enemies, therefore the Lord did hear their cries, and did strengthen them, and the Lamanites and the Amlicites did fall before them.

And it came to pass that Alma fought with Amlici with the sword, face to face; and they did contend mightily, one with another.

And it came to pass that Alma, being a man of God, being exercised with much faith, cried, saying: O Lord, have mercy and spare my life, that I may be an instrument in thy hands to save and preserve this people.

Now when Alma had said these words he contended again with Amlici; and he was strengthened, insomuch that he slew Amlici with the sword.

And he also contended with the king of the Lamanites; but the king of the Lamanites fled back from before Alma and sent his guards to contend with Alma.

But Alma, with his guards, contended with the guards of the king of the Lamanites until he slew and drove them back.

And thus he cleared the ground, or rather the bank, which was on the west of the river Sidon, throwing the bodies of the Lamanites who had been slain into the waters of Sidon, that thereby his people might have room to cross and contend with the Lamanites and the Amlicites on the west side of the river Sidon.

(Alma 2:27-34)

Alma 1

And so on to the book of Alma. The first chapter details the attempts of one Nehor to spread his false teachings (namely a version of universalism – the belief that everyone will be saved, and so consequently, that no one needs to repent – and of priestcraft: the idea that priests and teachers should be “popular” and be financially supported by the people), and his consequent trial and execution after he murders Gideon. His career is thus short-lived, although his teachings will have far greater staying power.

What stood out to me upon reading this book, however, emerged from the book heading (remember that – unlike the chapter headings, which are mere aids and not part of the text – most of the book headings are part of the scriptural text):

The account of Alma, who was the son of Alma, the first and chief judge over the people of Nephi, and also the high priest over the Church. An account of the reign of the judges, and the wars and contentions among the people. And also an account of a war between the Nephites and the Lamanites, according to the record of Alma, the first and chief judge.

(Heading to Alma, my emphasis)

As I read the header today, the repeated mentions of war really stood out to me. The book of Alma is notorious for spending quite a bit of space and time describing the wars that take place at this time, and I understand that some find the resulting “war chapters” hard to read or less interesting (I actually quite like them, but there you go), or even at odds with what they expect scripture to speak about. Funnily enough, these won’t be the most destructive conflicts in the Book of Mormon (that easily belongs to those in the books of Mormon & Ether), but the accounts in Alma are far more detailed, covering deployments, fortifications, equipment, strategies, logistics, propaganda, moral conduct in war and leading commanders and so on. And while the wars haven’t begun yet (don’t worry, one will start in chapter two!), the header warns us it will be a prominent topic.

Of course, that raises the question of why. I’m not the only one to make suggestions along these lines, but there’s several reasons I can think of (there may be yet more none of us has thought of yet!):

1) The war chapters can be read symbolically. There’s a variety of episodes in these chapters that readers over the years have read in a symbolic fashion as applying to us, even if we’re not involved in a physical war. Thus episodes like the stripling warriors, or Captain Moroni’s fortification efforts, or Amalickiah poisoning “by degrees”, have been read almost allegorically as either approaches we apply spiritually or warnings against possible dangers. I think much of this may be deliberate: the note at the beginning of Amalickiah’s plot amongst the Lamanites that he was “a very subtle man” (Alma 47:4) strikes me as a deliberate echo of Genesis 3:1. making Amalickiah a type of the serpent, and thus of Satan, much as other scriptural figures are types of Christ.

Why would war be a particularly good setting for such symbolism? I think perhaps because of the particular threat that wars represent. There’s a number of things that can present a collective existential threat to human beings aside from war: earthquakes, volcanoes, meteorite impacts, famine, floods, and disease of course. But only in the case of war is there an active mind guiding the actions of the enemy that wishes to do harm. But this is the best analogy for the situation we face spiritually: on a spiritual level we all face an existential threat – one that wishes to do harm to our very souls – and moreover one that is not simply a random act of nature, but which is guided by cunning, indeed “subtle” minds who wish to make us eternally miserable. Indeed, this conflict, even before it was extended to Earth, has already been called a war. This threat, of course, is principally spiritual, not physical, and so must many of our defences be. Yet just as victory in physical war requires courage, determination, vigilance and and all-out effort, so will victory in this spiritual war we all face.

2) War is an extreme situation. The true test of our commitment to any principal, including the gospel, is not when the situation is easy, but when it is hard. War is an extreme situation, compared to the every day lives most of us have been living, and so it is a crucible in which we see people’s determination to hold to and live the gospel be really tested, a refiner’s fire in which some “become hardened”, and in which others “humble themselves before God” (Alma 62:41). Many of us may not face war in our every day lives, but we will face situations which are far more challenging than our typical lives, points in which we get tested in extremis. Knowing that some have managed to live the gospel in similarly challenging times, and seeing how they did it, can be instructive.

3) We may face war one day ourselves. Much of the Western world has had a comparatively easy life for the last few decades: we have lived in unimaginable prosperity compared to most of our predecessors, while the threat of war has been remote. Oh, war has taken place, but largely at a remove from our own lands: it has affected many abroad, and also many servicemen who’ve gone to serve in those conflicts, but aside from acts of terrorism has largely left our own lives untouched.

Both history and the Book of Mormon would teach us not to assume this will always be the case. It’s funny that we speak during the present coronavirus pandemic of things “getting back to normal”, but while the lockdown is weird (and probably unsustainable in view of human nature), our lives beforehand weren’t “normal” compared to most of human history. They may never quite come back in that way. We face an economic crisis first; war is a frequent companion. Even if things recover swiftly at this stage (and perhaps they might), we cannot assume the comparatively idyllic period we have experienced will always remain the case. At some stage, war will affect people in our own lands. It is a human phenomenon, and as scripture is given by God to addresses all the challenges we humans face, I expect war to feature within.

And war does bring its own specific challenges. I think it no coincidence, for example, that the Book of Mormon – particularly in Alma – talks about moral conduct in warfare, for instance. War brings unique moral challenges, and a situation in which one could very easily lose their way. There is more in these chapters that I am sure those faced with such a situation can and will find value in. So if perhaps we’re amongst those who don’t find these chapters especially relevant right now, perhaps we should count ourselves fortunate. We should not assume that this will always be the case.

 

 

Mosiah 29

Mosiah 29 is where a lot of the transformations we’ve been talking about in previous chapters come to a head, and the Nephite government, under the urging of its last king, Mosiah, changes from a Monarchy to a system of Judges.

I comment on some of the political issues in this chapter in my article “The Daughters of the Lamanites and the Daughters of Shiloh“. However, to recap some of the overall big issues here, it’s worth pointing out and bearing in mind that the debate – particularly as Mosiah lays it out – isn’t a straightforward one between democracy and monarchy. Rather, Mosiah’s criticisms of monarchy focus on the degree to which it follows the commandments of God:

Therefore I will be your king the remainder of my days; nevertheless, let us appoint judges, to judge this people according to our law; and we will newly arrange the affairs of this people, for we will appoint wise men to be judges, that will judge this people according to the commandments of God.

Now it is better that a man should be judged of God than of man, for the judgments of God are always just, but the judgments of man are not always just.

(Mosiah 29:11-12)

Indeed, if a king could always be trusted to implement and follow God’s laws, it would be preferable to have a king:

Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.

(Mosiah 29:13)

However, the problem is is that they can’t, as their recent example of King Noah demonstrates. And a wicked king can rewrite the laws to his heart’s content and impose them on the people:

For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;

And he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness.

(Mosiah 29:22-23)

And fixing such a situation usually cannot be achieved by any steps short of civil war:

And behold, now I say unto you, ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.

(Mosiah 29:21)

Thus Mosiah proposes a system of judges instead, chosen “by the voice of this people” (v. 25). The term judges is significant: it calls back to the pre-monarchical government of Israel (and indeed, I believe episodes like Mosiah 20 are meant to do likewise), but it also points to the principal duty of these new governors. Mosiah isn’t proposing outright democracy, where the laws are to be made by the people. Rather, the judges are to judge “according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.” (v. 25); that is according to the laws of God that have been handed down, not to make and implement new laws.

Of course, Mosiah is proposing that the people have significant say in selecting the judges, though this isn’t necessarily a new feature (notice that – much like previous Nephite monarchs – he consults the people as to their choice for a king at the beginning of the chapter, vv. 1-2. This appears to be in keeping with Northern Israelite traditions of kingship, which included popular acclamation & prophetic endorsement, as compared to Judah’s stricter following of a hereditary principle). However, Mosiah’s justification for this is interesting, as he argues that it is less likely for the majority of the people to “go bad” than for a minority (or presumably, an individual), in what seems to be an early argument for the wisdom of crowds:

Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.

(Mosiah 29:26)

However, it should be noted that while it may be less likely for them to go wrong, the majority is not infallible, and when they do the consequences are correspondingly more severe than if simply misled by an iniquitous leader:

And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.

(Mosiah 29:27)

I’ve long found that last point quite thought-provoking. On one hand, this may be part of the reason that the consequences for the Nephites going astray (namely, extermination), were far more severe than for their old world counterparts. But I also think of its application to us. On which side of Mosiah’s scale does our system principally fall, and if so, what level of consequences are we likely to incur as we choose iniquity?

There’s several other things this chapter that stuck out to me upon reading this time around. One was the fortuitousness that Mosiah’s sons had both been converted and then left on a mission to the Lamanites prior to this point being reached. Could Mosiah even have proposed the judges otherwise (one also wonders why Mosiah asked first, knowing his sons were unavailable. Perhaps he wanted to make sure there wasn’t another – more available – leading candidate before proposing his alternative)?

Secondly, it’s interesting that a lot of the justification for the new system, versus the old, also centres on the issue of moral accountability. Mosiah argues, in verses 30-32 (my emphasis):

And I command you to do these things in the fear of the Lord; and I command you to do these things, and that ye have no king; that if these people commit sins and iniquities they shall be answered upon their own heads.

For behold I say unto you, the sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings; therefore their iniquities are answered upon the heads of their kings.

And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people; but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike, so long as the Lord sees fit that we may live and inherit the land, yea, even as long as any of our posterity remains upon the face of the land.

And indeed when the people accept his proposal (v. 38, my emphasis):

Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.

I find it interesting that both equality and liberty are considered to be so closely tied to this sense of moral accountability: that in order to be equal and free we need to be responsible, and suffer the consequences for, our own sins and iniquities. It’s interesting to think of the ways in which this moral accountability is seen not just as a duty or responsibility, but as part of ones “rights and privileges” as well.

Finally, the chapter closes with the selection of the first chief judge, namely Alma the younger (again, events two chapters previously seem very fortuitous!). Last chapter he was also chosen by Mosiah to look after the records, and in this chapter he also becomes high priest over the Church (v. 42). It’s thus interesting that even though we’ve had a stage in which church and state have developed as separate institutions, that all three of these offices (record-keeper, high-priest and chief judge) are once again combined in one person. However, as we shall see in the next few chapters, the different needs of some of these institutions will mean that this isn’t viable for long.

 

Mosiah 28

I don’t know that I have anything particularly profound to say about this chapter at this time, although there’s two important events in it: namely the setting off of the Sons of Mosiah on their mission to the Lamanites, and Mosiah’s translation of the Jaredite plates. I think that happens sometimes in our scriptural reading (at least it does for me): it’s not a continuous stream of learning and inspiration, but ebbs and flows. That shouldn’t be taken as a reflection on the chapter; indeed on other read-throughs, the feelings of the Sons of Mosiah, their anxiousness because of their prior sins and their desire to do right has struck a deep cord with more:

And thus did the Spirit of the Lord work upon them, for they were the very vilest of sinners. And the Lord saw fit in his infinite mercy to spare them; nevertheless they suffered much anguish of soul because of their iniquities, suffering much and fearing that they should be cast off forever.

(Mosiah 28:4)

But not so much today. On some days, and in some chapters, nearly every verse will appear to burst with possibilities. On others, a chapter (even the same chapter) may be good and worthy and say important things, but nothing will particularly stick out. And while sometimes that may be due to one’s own state or frame of mind, sometimes it just seems different. I think sometimes there’s simply a natural ebb and flow, and perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to be always “on”. I’ve referred to study of the scriptures as a “discipline” before, and I think it’s at such times that the discipline aspect becomes particularly important: to keep on reading and studying, even when nothing is particularly leaping out or appearing to address anything in our own life at the time. To keep looking so that when the time comes we are in a position to receive inspiration through the scriptures once again.

It is perhaps interesting from a literary perspective as to how there’s a “book within a book” dynamic going on. Mosiah, through the inspiration of God, has the task of translating the Jaredite plates. Mormon, our narrator, has read from his sources the account of Mosiah doing this, and is using his earlier sources to write his own work on metallic plates. And Joseph Smith relives the role of Mosiah, translating the plates of Mormon through inspiration, including this very account of Mosiah doing the same to these earlier plates. Aside from reminding one of Inception, it makes me wonder what those later in the chain (Mormon and Joseph Smith) thought as they came across these accounts and wrote or translated them. The Book of Mormon is very self-conscious about the process of writing, compilation, and translation – about literary activity – and I think much of that is because those involved in the writing it have the opportunity to reflect upon that because they in turn are reading and transmitting accounts of others doing the same.

I think verse 19 is worth noting:

And this account shall be written hereafter; for behold, it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account.

Why? Well because Mormon isn’t actually the one to end up including an account of the Jaredites in the Book of Mormon. It’s his son Moroni who does, in the Book of Ether, after the (spoilers!!) destruction of the Nephites. But while it’s Moroni who adds this account, this verse suggests that Moroni is following Mormon’s plan. Perhaps they discussed it? Or perhaps Moroni was inspired so that Mormon’s statement here doesn’t fall through.

Mosiah 27

Featuring the angelic visit to, and the conversion of, those rebellious youngsters, Alma “the younger” and the sons of Mosiah. Their campaign against the Church must have particularly challenging, considering it featured the son of the high priest of the Church in conspiracy with what were effectively royal princes and heirs of the king. That Alma senior rejoices when he finds out he son has been struck down by the power of God (v. 20) suggests their relationship had become somewhat fraught.

First things first, however. There’s a very interesting sentence in verse 1 (my emphasis):

And now it came to pass that the persecutions which were inflicted on the church by the unbelievers became so great that the church began to murmur, and complain to their leaders concerning the matter; and they did complain to Alma. And Alma laid the case before their king, Mosiah. And Mosiah consulted with his priests.

It’s just a small reference, so blink and you’ll miss it, and indeed it seems most people do; I’ve not come across any commentary on the line “[a]nd Mosiah consulted with his priests”. And it’s a really interesting line, a mention of an otherwise unmentioned group of priests associated with the king who are not so as part of the organization of the Church that Alma established.

And yet it makes sense. As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to picture the Church as this monolithic, all-encompassing organization as it has been in this dispensation, but that’s not always been the case in previous dispensations. Thus the early Christian church continued to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and as we’ve seen, many of those who’d entered into a covenant with God under King Benjamin’s urging also felt to unite with Alma and his church. I remember thinking about this when I came across this verse, because there’s some interesting possibilities here. For example, it’s mentioned repeatedly in the Book of Mormon that the Nephites – up until the visit of the risen Christ – kept the law of Moses, which would include its sacrifices and offerings. And yet the principal duties of priests in the Church, as laid out for instance in Mosiah 19, don’t really cover sacrifices and offerings. Furthermore, since King Benjamin’s people kept the law, someone there must have been performing these ordinances too. My suggestion is that it is these priests who are mentioned here. It’s also possible that they continued co-exist with the Church and perform these offerings after this point, which would account for the fact that such must have been happening, but no one – not even the Church leaders that are mentioned – is ever mentioned as performing them. The existence of an otherwise unmentioned group performing these ordinances (possibly for most of the Nephite populace, in the same way that the priests at the temple in Jerusalem did for Sadducee, Pharisee and Christian alike) would explain this, and the fact that the record is silent about them entirely fits with the fact that it’s a very selective account that’s entirely silent about a lot of matters that must have existed (Nephites with XX chromosomes, for example).

Moving from the interesting to the important. The experience of Alma and the sons of Mosiah is of course dramatic: an angel appears, declaring with a voice of thunder a warning not to fight against the Church of God. It’s been compared to the conversion experience of Paul on the road to Damascus, and I think there’s a lot of a parallels, although also a few crucial differences (Paul, at least, thought he was doing God’s work). It may seem unfair – I’ve certainly been privy to discussions in this vein – that Alma and his crew would have this sort of experience, that it made it “easy” for them. However, I think there’s some things to bear in mind:

  1. Divine intervention can often appear unfair. I remember pondering this at a time I was experiencing a significant degree of poverty, but was also blessed that God inspired some people to help me. I was aware that not everyone got that, and that it wasn’t because I “deserved” it. Likewise there have been many faced with the threat of death by fire for the gospel. Some, like Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-Nego are delivered by miraculous means. Others, like Abinadi as we’ve recently read, or the people in Ammonihah as we will read, burn to death. This is obviously not due to the righteousness of the people involved, or any other factor that we can see. But God sees more than we do, indeed sees all, and so his reasons for intervening in one case, and not another, encompass far more than we can comprehend. A key challenge of this life, after all, is not that God have to justify his moral reasoning to us, but that we have enough faith in him to trust him, to trust that he knows best even if we’re not in a position to see why.
  2. While Alma and the sons of Mosiah do indeed convert at this point, there’s ample scriptural evidence, especially in the Book of Mormon, that such experiences are not sufficient. Laman and Lemuel’s progress in the wrong direction was barely slowed by an angelic visit, for instance. That Alma, Ammon and so on responded in this way and turned their entirely lives round at this point is down to them and their decisions. Furthermore, while certainly swift, Alma’s repentance does not appear to have been easy (“wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death”, v. 28), and he elsewhere talks of “fast[ing] and pray[ing] many days” to know the truth of the Gospel (Alma 5:26).
  3. Finally, and this may seem obvious but it only really stuck out to me on this reading, the point of the angelic appearance (at least for the humans involved; God knowing all things I’m sure considered every factor) was not so much to convert Alma and his party (although that appears to have been a factor, since Alma the elder had prayed that his son “be brought to a knowledge of the truth”, Mosiah 27:14), but to to stop them going about to destroy the Church in answer to “the prayers of his people”. Thus the angel declares: “And now I say unto thee, Alma, go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more, that their prayers may be answered, and this even if thou wilt of thyself be cast off” (v. 16; interestingly this very instruction seems to have played a crucial role in Alma’s conversion according to his own account, Alma 36:9-11). The divine intervention was as much on behalf of everyone else to protect the people of the Church from Alma and the sons of Mosiah as it was to save them. That it also resulted in the latter is a happy side effect.

Finally, there’s Alma’s great statement when he rises from his stricken state. It’s a wonderful passage, beautiful and powerful, that speaks directly to the point that we all need to change, to be reborn, not just symbolically through baptism but inwardly also. Frankly I like it so much I’m just going to quote it in full:

For, said he, I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.

And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;

And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.

I say unto you, unless this be the case, they must be cast off; and this I know, because I was like to be cast off.

Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God.

My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.

I rejected my Redeemer, and denied that which had been spoken of by our fathers; but now that they may foresee that he will come, and that he remembereth every creature of his creating, he will make himself manifest unto all.

Yea, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess before him. Yea, even at the last day, when all men shall stand to be judged of him, then shall they confess that he is God; then shall they confess, who live without God in the world, that the judgment of an everlasting punishment is just upon them; and they shall quake, and tremble, and shrink beneath the glance of his all-searching eye.

(Mosiah 27:24-31)

Mosiah 26

This chapter records another stage in the dramatic changes that are happening in Nephite society at this time, as a sizeable proportion of the younger generation, who were not in a position to understand King Benjamin’s sermon from first hand experience, reject his teachings and (presumably) the associated covenant, and also reject the Church. Thus you have the definite emergence of a degree of religious pluralism at this time, some (indeed it seems virtually all who accepted King Benjamin’s teachings) joining the Church, but a significant part of the population (though still a minority, v. 5) remaining separate.

The part of this chapter that particularly stood out to me today, however, was the statement in verse 3:

And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.

There’s plenty of scriptures that emphasise the importance of belief, and that understanding the word of God is not simply a matter of intellectual comprehension (I think, for instance of 1 Corinthians 2:11-14, but there are many more). But I think this verse is the one that most starkly connects belief with understanding, in a way that really stood out to me today.

I think on some level that continues to surprise me. For instance, I find it relatively easy to understand why people might not believe the Gospel, but find it much harder to comprehend why people might find it, or particular scriptures,  hard to understand. So much of it seems clear and simple. And when it comes to other topics, I think we generally work on the assumption that we don’t need to believe a concept to understand a concept; I’d have hardly got a masters in Islamic studies if I’d thought otherwise, for instance. Likewise, in many scientific fields there’s a variety of competing hypotheses, and again it is presumed that those participating in those fields can understand the hypotheses without believing in them all first (especially since competing theories generally can’t all be true at the same time).

And yet here it is outright stated, and heavily supported elsewhere, that the gospel and the word of God is not like this. When it comes to the gospel, belief and understanding are intimately connected; some part of the gospel that might seem easy to comprehend to us, according to this verse, may appear bewildering to someone who does not believe. And I have seen this; indeed I know several people who’s understanding of the gospel appears to have gone backwards, so that they now know less than they once did, and are baffled by what they once easily understood. And yet it still seems a strange phenomenon to me, even though on some level I know it’s true and seen it happen. How can people find such clear things confusing? Especially when they once understood them?

I guess the key thing to recognise is that our understanding of the gospel is not simply a matter of study and the workings of our own mind, but also of faith and illumination by the spirit. Things that may appear clear to someone who believes and has the Holy Ghost to assist them may not be so to someone working solely with their own unaided and unbelieving mind. As 1st Corinthians 2:14 states: “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”. At the same time, it’s interesting to think of faith and belief as not opposed to knowledge, as some occasionally make out, but as a faculty that can peer through, that can perceive otherwise unseen things and which can lead to knowledge.

Mosiah 25

And so in this chapter we’re all finally caught back up into the same time frame, with Limhi and his people and Alma and the Church all now at Zarahemla with King Mosiah.

Firstly, something of a demographic note:

Now there were not so many of the children of Nephi, or so many of those who were descendants of Nephi, as there were of the people of Zarahemla, who was a descendant of Mulek, and those who came with him into the wilderness.

And there were not so many of the people of Nephi and of the people of Zarahemla as there were of the Lamanites; yea, they were not half so numerous.

While leadership amongst the Nephites has remained amongst the Nephites proper (v. 13), we find here that they are actually outnumbered by those who are ethnically descendants of Mulek. Furthermore (and this will be of particular relevance in the book of Alma), both groups together are significantly outnumbered by those grouped under the term Lamanites.

I was struck by verses 5 & 6:

And it came to pass that Mosiah did read, and caused to be read, the records of Zeniff to his people; yea, he read the records of the people of Zeniff, from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until they returned again.

And he also read the account of Alma and his brethren, and all their afflictions, from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time they returned again.

I guess what dawned on me is what would have happened if Zeniff and his people, and Alma and so on, hadn’t kept any records? Obviously Mosiah wouldn’t be able to read anything. This who communal experience they’re about to have wouldn’t happen. The knowledge, the teachings, the experiences and the wisdom gained from them contained in those records would be lost. I guess it underlined to me – as a number of passages in the book of Mosiah have, the importance of record keeping..

And now, when Mosiah had made an end of reading the records, his people who tarried in the land were struck with wonder and amazement.

For they knew not what to think; for when they beheld those that had been delivered out of bondage they were filled with exceedingly great joy.

And again, when they thought of their brethren who had been slain by the Lamanites they were filled with sorrow, and even shed many tears of sorrow.

And again, when they thought of the immediate goodness of God, and his power in delivering Alma and his brethren out of the hands of the Lamanites and of bondage, they did raise their voices and give thanks to God.

And again, when they thought upon the Lamanites, who were their brethren, of their sinful and polluted state, they were filled with pain and anguish for the welfare of their souls.

(Mosiah 25:7-11)

This passage reminds me a bit about some discussions I’ve had with people about the synchronised response to King Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah 5. There’s no reported speech here, so there’s no issue with that, and we have a range of feelings described. While the passage is speaking of all the people, the way these feelings are juxtaposed together leads me to think they can be mixed in multiple ways. One is as a sequential series of feelings; King Mosiah is, after all, sharing the records, and different parts of that story are likely to provoke a different response (and some of these responses are to specific events in the narrative being told). But I also think that – just as is true for us – it is likely that different people in the audience responded differently, that different parts of the account leapt out at them and made an impact. Some people may have been moved more to sorrow, while for others such feelings may have been dwarfed at their joy at seeing those delivered. I think the way this passage is narrated really communicates that mix of feelings amongst the audience. I don’t know of any particularly profound point that can be drawn from that, other than that as individuals, we’re likely to have different emotional responses, or find different things personally resonating, to anything we come across (including the scriptures themselves, which is presumably why a key aim with the “Come Follow Me” programme is that we not only study, but then share what we’ve learned with others.

The final passage that I’d like to comment on is in verses 19-21:

And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church.

Now this was done because there were so many people that they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly;

Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma.

This is an important transition step, amongst a bunch that will be happening over the next few chapters. For much of the immediate preceding history, the political and religious leadership has been the same: King Benjamin and Mosiah were both the political and religious leaders of their people, in much the same way that Moses, Joshua or even Nephi were. Zeniff too consecrated priests, as for that matter so did Noah, though obviously that didn’t go so well (Mosiah 11:5). Abinadi seems a bit of an exception, since he seems to come from outside the hierarchy and opposing the king, in a manner akin to Elijah or Elisha, and like them he did so alone. Alma then established the Church, but it was for a while a separate society and entirely self-governing. Here, however, we have a clear step to the Church being a distinct institution, with a distinct earthly leadership (namely Alma) from the state in the form of the monarchy, but co-existing alongside it at the same time. It’s interesting that this actually happens at a point when both the high priest of the Church and the king are inspired individuals; perhaps that’s what made this step possible (it’s undoubtedly part of the reason that the co-existence, at this point, is so smooth). As we’ll see over the next few chapters, this is part of a range of changes that are occurring in Nephite society at this time.

Mosiah 24

There’s a lot of parallels between the situation of Alma and his people in this and the previous chapter, and that of the people of Limhi in the preceding chapters. They’re both kept prisoners in their own lands, both are faced with a particularly arduous trial that they are then able to bear, both faced with the task of escaping, and then both successfully elude the forces guarding them to escape to the land of Zarahemla.

However, it’s also worth noting how the situations are subtly different too: the stories act as type scenes by which small variations in the recurring pattern can convey meaning. And there’s a consistent difference in how events pan out here and how they do for the people of Limhi (I’m not the only one to have spotted this by the way – I’m pretty sure Grant Hardy makes a similar or the same observation in Understanding the Book of Mormon).

Thus take the period in which both groups are described as suffering particularly heavy burdens (upon their backs, no less). The people of Limhi, upon being increasing treated as pack animals, make three attempts to fight for their freedom (Mosiah 21:3-12). This doesn’t work, however, so that the people are humbled, and begin crying to God for deliverance, and in time – though he is “slow to hear their cry” – the hearts of their oppressors are softened and the burdens ease (21:13-15).

In contrast, Alma and the church are similarly burdened can’t even call out loud to God, as Amulon (who appears to hold a grudge towards Alma), forbids prayer and stations guards to kill any who offend (24:9-11). However, the people continue to pray in their heart, and actually have God reassure them that he will ease their burdens and will eventually deliver them, and he strengthens them so they are able to bear those burdens (24:12-15).

Similarly, as we have seen, Limhi and his people eventually escaped through Gideon’s cunning plan in which they got their guards very very drunk, and made off while the guards were incapacitated. In contrast here, however, God again communicates with the people, and then miraculously causes the guards to be comatose, letting the people escape (24:16-19). And while the army that pursued the people of Limhi got lost (and so blundered into Alma and his colony, Mosiah 22:15-16, 23:30-36), here the people are warned by revelation that their pursuers are after them, and told that God will stop them (24:23).

In each case, the difference appears to be that the events Alma and the church experienced were more overtly miraculous , more explicit demonstrations of God’s power and will. In one case the people begin crying to God, but he takes his time to respond and then softens the hearts of their enemies; in the other he reveals that he’s going to help them, and miraculously strengthens them. In one case, escape requires a cunning plan, bad navigation and lots of alcohol; in the other it is purely an act of divine intervention. Even the same event is described a bit differently: the initial flight of Alma and his people from Noah is earlier described as being due to them being “apprised of the coming of the king’s army” (Mosiah 18:34), something that could easily describe human informants. It’s only when we read the later account that we find it’s because Alma was “warned of the Lord” (23:1).

I believe the deliverance of the people of Limhi is still meant to be seen as God working on their behalf. However, due to their earlier wickedness, and the time it takes for them to humble themselves and call upon him, he is “slow to hear their cry”, his intervention is more subtle, and they are left unsure of their deliverance until it actually happens. But for the people of Alma and his church, while they face many of the same trials, their faithfulness means that God’s intervention on their behalf is more direct, and also that they are reassured through revelation along the way that God will help them and will ultimately liberate them. In both cases, God’s willingness to aid and deliver his people is shown; but for the people who had faith and who were swift to repent, that divine power manifested all the more easily and readily.