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.
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.
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.
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.