Alma, Introduction and Overview
I have recently come to the view that the book of Alma is a selection of political events that were affecting the happiness of the people in the century before Christ appeared to the people on the American continent. I use the word political even though his record kept by the religious is not often viewed as a political record. But it can be and, perhaps, should be. The wars and contentions between those who would rule over the people is the sort of contest at work in today's world. There seems to be a large faction of people in the United States, for example, who attack religion and those who follow Christ. There are factions that would destroy the Constitution. Many think the Presidential election of 2020 has consequences for the choosing of judges and legislators and the control of the executive branch that will change society from the traditional Christian society it has been to something antithetical and hostile to a Christian nation. This book of Alma seems to anticipate this sort of political fight.
A casual reading of Alma leaves the impression that it records a series of disconnected, somewhat repetitious events full of pithy quotations. This difficulty comes from the predisposition to treat this book as a history because it tells of historical events, but, of course, the Book of Mormon was never intended to be a history, so attempts to make Alma into one result in confusion. Mormon redacted the records to create this book with a purpose. He was not summarizing a series of events.
Mormon’s purpose is evident from an overview. It contrasts the effects of missionary efforts among those who are converted to the gospel of Christ with those who are not. Missionary efforts are not the right words for Alma’s day; in fact, the words mission and missionary never appear in the text of the Book of Mormon. What are viewed by today’s readers as missionary efforts is presentism.
There was then no separation of church and state as there is today. Teachers and priests—these terms in the Book of Mormon clearly denote priesthood offices—were involved in governmental affairs because the government was a theocracy.1
What the modern-day reader views as missionary work by Alma and the others seeking the conversion of the wicked then is what we would call political campaigning today. Since Mormon saw our day and redacted the records to make a book with an eye on our time, the book presents episodes apropos to our day. These episodes provide the solution to the political turmoil roiling America today, the same sort of political turmoil that roiled the people in Alma’s day. The fight between good and evil. The need to imbue people with religious principles that lead to both eternal salvation and temporal peace. So those reading this book should use it as a primer on how to act among society today. How? Take a stand for religion against those who want to secularize America and the world.
The following represent convenient divisions that address secularization and the effects of standing up for religion. These are convenient divisions in the sense that they provide a comparison and contrast of the effects of what the reader today may call missionary efforts rather than the political campaigning they were at the time. Each of the following divisions, therefore, provide a this-and-that for comparison and contrast. Viewed as political campaigns, extrapolations from these divisions for application to today’s world is clearer.
1. Alma 1–4.
Today’s chapter divisions differ from the chapters in the original editions, meaning the editions published before Orson Pratt’s revisions to the Book of Mormon in 1879. Orson Pratt changed the chapter divisions, added the versifications, and introduced cross references and explanatory/interpretative material by adding footnotes. His footnotes remained in the Book of Mormon, except for the 1921 deletion of his explanatory and interpretive footnotes, until the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon.
The focus of chapters one through four is the preaching to those who were not religious. Historical background is found in chapters one through four, which covers the eight years of Alma the Younger’s rule as the first chief judge. During this time, there were different political parties, using today-s parlance. The language of the day differentiated between members of the church and priestcraft. the former sharing and free while the latter were greedy and persecuted the church members. Nehor is the leader of the political, anti-religion faction. Nehor is executed for crimes, but Amlici was a follower of Nehor who failed to be elected as the Nephite leader. Amlici incited a war because he was not content with the voice of the people, so there is an account of the Amlicite war. Alma was the elected leader during the war, but he resigns as the chief judge and begins his missionary efforts to prevent quell the political unrest that had resulted in the Amlicite war. Nephihah, a righteous man, becomes the second chief judge.
2. Alma 5–6.
Focus: preaching to wayward members. Mormon’s summary of these chapters is in the translated headnote, “the words of Alma which he delivered to the people in Gideon, according to his own records.” Chapters five and six are about Alma’s teaching in Zarahemla; his own words in chapter five followed by Mormon’s summary of the effects of Alma’s teaching to the people in chapter six. The members of the church in Zarahemla needed to repent, and the tone of the message to them is both incredulous and sarcastic. They approach worked, the people repented, and Alma experienced joy from his efforts. Preaching to wayward members.
3. Alma 7.
Focus: preaching to the faithful. Chapter seven is about Alma’s preaching in Gideon, the next part of Alma’s first mission. The people in Gideon were more righteous than the people in Zarahemla, so his teachings had a hopeful and encouraging tone about the advent of the Savior. Faithfulness and perseverance were praised. Preaching to the faithful.
4. Alma 8–16.
Focus: teaching and ultimate destruction of Ammonihah. Chapter eight is a segue to the preaching in Ammonihah. After returning to and resting in Zarahemla, Alma travels to Melek, Ammonihah, and Sidom. Little is recorded about his teachings at the beginning of this journey to the faithful in Melek or, at the end of his journey, to the faithful in Sidom; indeed, the focus starts with chapter nine, the wicked inhabitants of Ammonihah who, unlike the people in Zarahemla, did not repent when they were called to repentance. Chapters nine through thirteen contain Mormon’s quotes of Alma and Amulek, and chapter fourteen recounts their imprisonment and deliverance. The headnote before chapter nine says, “The words of Alma, and also the words of Amulek, which were declared unto the people who wee in the land of Ammonihah. And also they were cast into prison, and delivered by the miraculous power of God which was in them, according to the record of Alma.”
Chapters seventeen through twenty-nine involve teaching to the Lamanites who, in contrast to the differing groups of the Nephites, did not have the gospel at all, so their repentance and concomitant blessings provide a comparison of yet a fourth group of people, a people that ultimately inherit the land of Jershon and become known as the people of Ammon.
5. Alma 17–20.
Focus: Mormon’s headnote to these chapters is, “An account of the sons of Mosiah, who rejected their rights to the kingdom for the word of God, and went up to the land of Nephi to preach to the Lamanites; their sufferings and deliverance—according to the record of Alma.”2
6. Alma 21–22.
Focus: Mormon wrote a headnote that appears before the beginning of chapter twenty-one, as well, “An account of the preaching of Aaron, and Muloki, and their brethren, to the Lamanites.”3
7. Alma 23–29.
Focus: teaching to the Lamanites. Mormon’s headnote to this section is found in the last verse of chapter twenty-two, “And now I, after having said this, return again to the account of Ammon and Aaron, Omner and Himni, and their brethren.” It is not set as a headnote, but this appears to be a printer’s or translation error. These chapters tell of the conversion of the Lamanites in seven cites and locales, which resulted in the converted assuming the name of Anti-Nephi-Lehies. This group of converted people formed what would be called a political party today, and their political party controlled the government. The successor king was named Anti-Nephi-Lehi, and his ascension to the throne resulted in a political rift and war between the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and the Lamanites. The Anti-Nephi-Lehies would not fight. Ammon’s teachings to the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, their emigration to Jershon. Alma’s were-an-angel soliloquy.
8. Alma 30–35.
Focus: teaching to religiously misguided. Alma, Ammon, Aaron and Omner’s mission to the apostate Zoramites. Unlike any of the preceding groups, these were individuals who remained religious but were dissenters from the church, so they were not inherently wicked, just led away by the teachings of those who practiced the craft of the Zoramites.
9. Alma 36–42.
Focus: Alma’s admonitions to his three sons, Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton. This ends Alma’s record.
10. Alma 43–44.
Focus: battles. These chapters are about the battles between the Nephites and the Lamanites in 74 bc. Armor, spies, and the Lord’s help wins the battles for the Nephites who were fight for their homes and families, not monarch and power.
11. Alma 45–62.
Focus: the Nephites after Alma departed and Helaman assumed the records. Mormon describes this chapters in headnote preceding what is today’s chapter forty-five, “The account of the people of Nephi, and their wars and dissensions, in the days of Helaman, according to the record of Helaman, which he kept in his days.”
- The nature of the priesthood among the Nephites deserves more than a passing reference or this footnote. Suffice it to say here that the priesthood did not involve a lineage of authority that traced back to a divine source before the appearance of the Savior. Instead, the official priesthood was a designation made by the king. This same type of king-made calling was typical of the Old Testament time except, of course, for the Levitical priesthood. But there was no one of Levite heritage among the Nephites; Lehi was from the tribe of Manasseh, Alma 10:3, and it is commonly supposed that Ishmael was a descendant of Ephraim because of a talk given by Erastus Snow in Logan, Utah, on May 6, 1882, Journal of Discourses, vol. 23, at 184–185. No one among the Nephites had inherited rights to the priesthood, so the king chose who was to be a teacher or priest in much the same way the President of the United States chooses his cabinet. Nephi, for example, acceded to the desire of the Nephites who fled with him to be their king, 2 Nephi 5:18, and promptly “consecrate[d] Jacob and Joseph, that they should be priests and teachers over the land of my people.: 2 Nephi 5:29. Jacob declares his authority to act as the religious leader by referring to his designation by the king, his brother, “I, Jacob, having been called of God and ordained after the manner of his holy order, and having been consecrated by my brother Nephi, unto whom ye look as a king . . . .” 2 Nephi 6:2. Called of God must refer to his selection by King Nephi, this selection by the king being “after the manner of his [God’s] holy order” because the king acts in God’s stead as the ruler of the people in a kingdom or theocracy..
Joseph Fielding Smith, then an apostle, did not think the consecration of Jacob and Joseph by King Nephi even involved the priesthood, and he used the words holy order, which appear frequently in the Book of Mormon to justify his idea. He said,
It is true that Nephi “consecrated Jacob and Joseph” that they should be priests and teachers over the land of the Nephites, but the fact that plural terms priests and teachers were used indicates that this was not a reference to the definite office in the priesthood in either case, but it was a general assignment to teach, direct, and admonish the people. Otherwise the terms priest and teacher would have been given, in the singular.
Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Priesthood of the Nephites,” Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 1 (Salt Lake: Desert Book, 1957) at 124. He continues saying in reference to 2 Nephi 6:2, “This seems to be a confirmation of the ordinations that he and his brother Joseph received in the Melchizedek Priesthood. All through the Book of Mormon we find references to the Nephites officiating by virtue of the Higher Priesthood after the holy order. Id. a 125.
Joseph Fielding Smith and many others have concluded that the priesthood among the Nephites was the Melchizedek Priesthood, but the Book of Mormon does not make that at all clear, Alma 13 notwithstanding. Certainly, Joseph Smith’s notion about the priesthood, what it was, and the ultimate description of it—after several years—as a greater and lesser priesthood (Melchizedek and Aaronic), involved a metamorphosis. Gerald E. Smith, ch. 5, “Priesthood Restorations, Origins, and Influences,” Schooling the Prophet, How the Book of Mormon Influenced Joseph Smith and the Restoration (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, BYU, 2015) at 165–206.
- Mormon’s headnote before chapter 17. Of course, the last fragment of this headnote, “Comprising chapters 17 to 26 inclusive,” is a modern-day editorial addition.
- Again, the modern-day editorial addition to Mormon’s headnote, “Comprising chapters 21 to 26 inclusive,” was not part of what Mormon wrote, and it is wrong. This account of Aaron and Muloki concludes at the end of chapter 23 according to Mormon, “And now I, after having said this, return again to the account of Ammon and Aaron, Omner and Himni, and their brethren.” Alma 22:35.