They chose… poorly.
Some don’t: some of the people of Ammonihah repent at Alma the Younger and Amulek’s teaching. Then there’s Zeezrom who – fuelled by guilt for his role in shaping the public mind – now testifies on behalf of Alma and Amulek, and is cast out and driven out along with other believers by stoning for his troubles.
But the rest of the people choose to reject their preaching, and do so in a way that proves their culpability. They arrest Alma and Amulek, the people stand as false witnesses against them, and then:
And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.
Even if they had a legitimate grievance against Alma and Amulek, what right had they to take out their “hurt feelings” by murdering those who simply happened to believe their words? Or not even that: some of those burnt here are simply the wives and children of those they drove out for believing; those they burnt may not even believe themselves. It is simply guilt by association, and an act that entirely vindicates the judgment God is about to bring upon them.
It’s interesting that they burn the holy scriptures too, as if by destroying them they can remove the threat posed by those words. By while they may destroy the physical copies, you cannot burn the word of God, only be burned by it.
Understandably, Alma and Amulek – who are forced to witness this – are moved by this:
And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.
And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.
But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.
It’s worth contemplating that it’s possible Amulek is seeing members of his own family burn before him. We know he has a large family: he speaks of “my women, and my children, and my father and my kinsfolk” (Alma 10:11).* But while later it is mentioned that he was rejected “by his father and his kindred” (Alma 15:16), there is no mention of his “women” and childen.
There’s also a bit of wordplay going in this chapter. The Greek word from which we derive the term martyr (and hence martyrdom) is μάρτυρ (martur), which literally means witness. It’s present association with dying for the faith came from the fact that, for many early Christians, bearing witness of the faith and dying became synonymous. In this passage we likewise see the very term used (“place of martyrdom”), and then notice how the word “witness” is repeated in the verses following. I write more about that here.
Of course here the focus is on what Alma and Amulek are witnesses, which is not so much of the faith (though they – and the martyrs – have surely done that), but of the crimes of the unrepentant people of Ammonihah, who by this act demonstrate that they deserve every piece of judgment coming their way. Verse 11 is particularly interesting here: God could intervene. He has done so on other occasions when people were threatened with burning (such as Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-nego in Daniel 3). As I’ve mentioned before, it might be confusing, even troubling, as to why God intervenes in some cases but not others. Divine providence in the immediate sense can be unpredictable: God is working according to a plan that we cannot see in its entirety, and the challenge is that we must trust him that – whether he intervenes, or not – that his choice will in the end be right. As indeed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego did, for while they knew God could save him, they didn’t know if he would, but they trusted that whatever he willed would be right and pledged to serve him anyway (“But if not“, Daniel 3:18).
What we do know, however, is that mortal life is one of deferred judgment. In order to give us freedom to act, the freedom to either repent or to hang ourselves, God does not immediately judge us for what we do. Alma in fact has just been teaching the people of Ammonihah this, of how this life is “a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). As Peter states:
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
(2 Peter 3:9)
What this means is that in the present, the “right now”, that this life is often unjust. To give us this freedom, one way or the other, means that we live in a world in which the wicked can act against the righteous, as they do so murderously here, without immediate intervention. That can be hard for many people. Of course, Christ himself has personally experienced this injustice at the hands of men; he knows what if feels like.
But this present state of injustice is not fated to continue: while God’s judgments are deferred, they are not to be denied. God himself will impose justice sooner or later, which involves both making things right for those who are hurt, and bringing judgment down upon those who have incriminated themselves. Thus this life fulfils its purpose as an arena in which by our own choice we rise or sink, not in worldly stature, but to either rise towards goodness and godliness and virtue, or to sink into evil and depravity. The people of Ammonihah have been allowed to make their choice: those they hurt will in the end be blessed, and lose nothing, while the guilty have been left with no excuse and will lose everything.
Not that they recognise the full depth of their error just yet:
Now it came to pass that when the bodies of those who had been cast into the fire were consumed, and also the records which were cast in with them, the chief judge of the land came and stood before Alma and Amulek, as they were bound; and he smote them with his hand upon their cheeks, and said unto them: After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?
I suppose they think that was terribly clever.
Now this judge was after the order and faith of Nehor, who slew Gideon.
I find this interesting and significant. The Nehorite belief, after all, is that:
… all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.
That can sound good and positive to many people; indeed I know it does because I’ve heard several members of the Church say so (and even think there’s not much wrong with that statement) in recent discussions. And yet there’s a glaring omission, that of repentance. The Nehorite salvation is one that excludes the need for any repentance, and any need to meet a higher standard.
Now I’m sure there were those who adhered to the Nehorite creed who did not approach the level of the people of Ammonihah. And yet I think there is a connection, between that belief and the acts we see here. A world in which everyone is already “saved”, in which none of us need to reform or change, is a world in which no bad tendency need to be fought, no habit need to be curbed, and no effort made to prepare for heaven (defeating the very purpose of mortality that Alma has spoken about). A world in which people do not repent, do not seek to be better, is not a world of people destined for heaven. It is hell. And we see here the hellish conclusion of Nehorite belief, where the notion of moral disapproval and calls to repentance inspire murderous rage.
Judgment, of course, is coming for the people of Ammonihah, and in their case that judgment is not deferred for too long. Indeed for their leaders it comes far sooner than they can expect:
And it came to pass after they had thus suffered for many days, (and it was on the twelfth day, in the tenth month, in the tenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi) that the chief judge over the land of Ammonihah and many of their teachers and their lawyers went in unto the prison where Alma and Amulek were bound with cords.
And the chief judge stood before them, and smote them again, and said unto them: If ye have the power of God deliver yourselves from these bands, and then we will believe that the Lord will destroy this people according to your words.
And it came to pass that they all went forth and smote them, saying the same words, even until the last; and when the last had spoken unto them theof God was upon Alma and Amulek, and they rose and stood upon their feet.
I think that fact that God intercedes at this point, after the leaders collectively make the challenge that if Alma and Amulek will deliver themselves, they’ll believe the people will be destroyed, is a significant reflection of how Alma and Amulek’s mission has become one of providing grounds for incrimination.
And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great, O Lord? O Lord, us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto . And they broke the cords with which they were bound; and when the people saw this, they began to flee, for the fear of destruction had come upon them.
While from our perspective, as readers, this comes soon, I’m sure that’s not how it felt to Alma and (maybe especially) Amulek. It’s not clear how long they spent imprisoned (verse 22 simply says “many days”). Alma made his way to Ammonihah early in the 10th year, but then spent some time with Amulek and his household. But since it is now almost halfway through the 10th month, I think months is a reasonable guess.
It is interesting that these leaders begin to flee the moment the cords are broken, before any other displays of divine power, “for the fear of destruction had come upon them”. This suggests their final, unanimous, challenge was true; and now Alma and Amulek have been delivered from their bands, and now the people recognise they will be destroyed. I wonder if they recognise in these moments – perhaps they begin to sense it in full – precisely how far they’ve gone wrong, if they realise the pit that is opening beneath them, and how much they truly deserve it.
And it came to pass that so great was their fear that they fell to the earth, and did not obtain the outer door of the prison; and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain, so that they fell to the earth; and the chief judge, and the lawyers, and priests, and teachers, who smote upon Alma and Amulek, were slain by the fall thereof.
And Alma and Amulek came forth out of the prison, and they were not hurt; for the Lord had granted unto them power, according to their faith which was in Christ. And they straightway came forth out of the prison; and they were loosed from their bands; and the prison had fallen to the earth, and every soul within the walls thereof, save it were Alma and Amulek, was slain; and they straightway came forth into the city.
Now the people having heard a great noise came running together by multitudes to know the cause of it; and when they saw Alma and Amulek coming forth out of the prison, and the walls thereof had fallen to the earth, they were struck with great fear, and fled from the presence of Alma and Amulek even as a goat fleeth with her young from two lions; and thus they did flee from the presence of Alma and Amulek.
Thus ends the first stage of the judgment of Ammonihah.
* Incidentally, Amulek may be one of the few polygamous individuals in the Book of Mormon. While it’s possible “my women” may refer to other female members of the household, it seems a very strong term to describe servants or even other female kinsfolk, while Hebrew uses the same word for “wife” and “woman” (אִשָּׁ֣ה), and the Book of Mormon likewise uses “women” as a synonym for “wives” in 1 Nephi 17:1-2 & 20.