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.