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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.