I find that as I read the account of Alma preaching, his words on baptism and the account of the Church he established, there’s a few things I’m curious about; I’ve noticed (and wondered about) them before, and so am still wondering:
- Where and when (and how) precisely did Alma obtain his authority? He mentions having it when baptising Helam (v. 13, as is proper; we still do the same!), and again reference is made to him having it when he ordains priests in verse 18. Did this require something like angelic intervention, or was his prior ordination as a priest considered legitimate, even if the priests and Noah himself had been corrupt? There doesn’t seem to have been any opportunity for Abinadi himself to be the conduit (at least in terms of conveying it by ordination).
- Why did Alma immerse himself in the water at the same time he baptized Helam? That doesn’t seem like it would count as a full baptism (contrast, after all, the fact that John the Baptist had Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery alternate in baptizing each other, JS-H 1:70). Was it a symbolic act, or did it have deeper significance?
As said, these are curiosities rather than concerns. They shouldn’t trouble us as such: I think one thing this chapter illustrates is that there can and have been significant differences in Church organization and ordinances in different dispensations, but at the same time deep continuity. Sometimes I see people confused over the idea that God and truth don’t change on one hand, but seeing or experiencing changes within the Church on the other.
This is sometimes seen as contradictory: a conflict between “doctrine” doesn’t change and yet “doctrine” apparently changing. Of course, that really depends on how one defines “doctrine”; the word just means “teaching”, after all, and we tend to use it in a much more expansive and woolly sense than the Book of Mormon itself does. But not everything we do within the Church, even when commanded by God, is an eternal truth. The Word of Wisdom, for instance, may be based on good principles but is also a specific instruction for the last days (D&C 89:2). Likewise, the Mosaic prohibition against eating pork does not apply now (since I like bacon, I think we got the better half of the deal). Even the prohibition against murder can only apply while mortal life (and so the possibility of murder) exists (and there’s also been specific exceptions to that in this life…) God is eternal, but a wide variety of instruction, teachings, counsel and even commandments do change. This is because they are manifestations of God’s will to enable us to hold onto unchanging truths in a world where the challenges we face shift and change, not unchanging instruments in and of themselves.
And I think this chapter really demonstrates and shows that. Thus the Church is organized quite differently from the way we have it today, in the sense that only one in fifty members was ordained as a priest (v. 18). This may seem very different to members used to the current idea of every worthy male member being ordained; indeed so different that some readers attempt to project back modern practices and in doing so end up misreading the book. But – while it may not be entirely clear quite where Alma got it from – it is still the case that performing ordinances, teaching, and conferring authority required authority from God. The details may have changed, but there is a core of continuity. Likewise, the words that Alma baptizes Helam with are quite different from those given by Christ (which we largely follow today) in 3 Nephi 11. But conceptually the connection is so clear that this chapter including those very words are still used a primary resource to teach about the covenant we make at baptism. Indeed, the notion that we covenant to “serve [God] and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you” (Mosiah 18:10) is clearly expressed in current ordinances in the sacrament prayers. The form may have changed, but the truths expressed have not.