This piece uses Heather Hardy’s Fall 2011 Dialogue article entitled “Alma’s Experiment in Faith: A Broader Context” as a springboard to even more broadly explore the faith journey of Alma, son of Alma, as recorded in the Book of Mormon.
Alma is one of the most prominent characters in the Book of Mormon narrative, whose life and teachings are documented more thoroughly and extensively than perhaps any other character. We first meet him in Mosiah 27:10 as an enemy of the church, and last hear of him in Alma 45:18–19 as he is presumptively buried by the hand of God. An examination of the span of his life narrative and of the sequence of his recorded words reveals some very meaningful insights into his life and psyche.
“I do know of myself that they are true”
After his reformation from his wayward youth, Alma is a testimony-bearing true believer, who has fasted and prayed “that [he] might know these things of [himself]” (Alma 5:46), and who forsakes his civic duties to preach the good word (Alma 4:19). He occasionally speaks of the limits of his spiritual knowledge (Alma 7:8), but generally is confident in speaking “according to the Spirit which testifieth in [him].” (Alma 7:26)
Alma endures some trials in Ammonihah, but the sophistry of the lawyers and judges there is easily rebutted by his deft scriptural expositions. Despite his best efforts, however, most of his converts are murdered (Alma 14:8), and the entire city he ministered unto is destroyed (Alma 16:1–2, 25:1–3). We sense a reflective melancholy in Alma 29, after Alma learns of the spectacular success of his friends’ ministries among the Lamanites during the same time. Alma implies some general dissatisfaction, getting down on himself by saying that he “ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted.” (Alma 29:3)
“Behold, ye cannot know”
When Alma meets Korihor (Alma 30), he is presented—for the first time—with rational arguments that he is by-and-large unprepared to deal with. Korihor’s central allegation is: “Ye do not know that there shall be a Christ.” (v26)
Alma skirts the issue by providing an apologetic response to Korihor’s incidental charge that Alma gluts himself off the people (v32–34), affirms that belief makes people happy (v35), bears a seemingly scripted testimony (v39), and claims that “all things denote there is a God.” (v44) But Korihor’s original question— “How do ye know of their surety?” (v15) —remains unanswered. His rational logic—and the accompanying cog-dis—lingers palpably the air: “Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.” (ibid)
This isn’t just a jab at theology; it is a personal challenge to Alma’s own epistemology. And Alma—conveniently spared by Korihor’s unexpected recantation—has no credible, satisfactory response to the tough questions.
Alma comes out of the exchange as the “winner,” thanks only to the deus-ex-machina of the miraculous sign from heaven that Korihor receives. But from a rhetorical perspective, Alma is manifestly outdone—and he knows it.
“The great question”
If we observe Alma’s words and behavior from that time forth, it becomes apparent that he may have been introspectively wondering if his belief system was indeed not “the effect of a frenzied mind.” (v16)
As Alma rounds up the missionary dream-team to go meet some disaffected ex-members (Alma 31), we find him in what could very well be a state of depression. He expresses sorrow for the “iniquity among his people” (v2) and we soon learn that their iniquity over which he is so troubled involves the fact that they say that “that there shall be no Christ” (v29) : the very same issue he failed to rebut in the debate with Korihor.
When Alma actually begins teaching the people (Alma 32), he presents what is arguably the most empirical, rational approach to spiritual learning in all of scripture. This is not the brazen Alma who fearlessly confounded the church of Zarahemla (Alma 5), or the unabashed Alma who ministered boldly to Ammonihah (Alma 8–15). This is a far more thoughtful, rational, and nuanced Alma, who now concedes that “ye cannot know of [words’] surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge,” (v26) and who teaches that rather than seeking to know that something is “true”, it is far more reasonable to seek to know that something is “good.” (v31) Most remarkably, Alma does not overtly mention Jesus Christ by name a single time, uses more generalized, symbolic, and universal language (i.e. “the word”) and couches all of his messianic references in the words of past prophets who do not refer to Jesus by name (Alma 33). One might make the case that he was simply tempering his message to his audience, but when Amulek takes the stage, (Alma 34) he goes out of his way to clarify that Alma’s careful word choices were actually references to Christ (v2). Amulek then takes a stab at answering the Zoramites’ (and Alma’s?) “great question…whether there shall be no Christ.” (v5) Through all this, Alma may have been in the midst of reevaluating his assumptions about the gospel’s fundamental truth claims—and choosing his words accordingly.
“I should not have known these things”
Later, Alma speaks to his son Helaman, and begins with a narrative of his personal conversion (Alma 36). The massive amount of forethought and painstaking consideration that went into this chapter is evident in its chiastic structure (which, while it does not forcibly prove ancient origin, it is almost certainly indicative of tremendous attention to detail, and deliberate intentionality on the part of the author). After what was doubtless much reflection, introspection, and the maturation of a belief system, this is what Alma comes up with:
Alma literally (literarily?) frames his spiritual experience in the context of broader religious history and heritage (v2). Next, he again admits that spiritual knowledge is not fully compatible with the “temporal…carnal mind” (v4) and is not the product of reason or rhetoric, but of being personally “born of God” (v5). He tells the story of his delinquent youth with the sons of Mosiah, the dramatic visit from an angel, the feelings of his lost soul (v6–16). The apex of his account relates directly to the central question of his faith crisis: “I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” (v17–18) He describes the subsequent redemption that he felt by saying that “there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy,” language awfully reminiscent of the product of the empirical process he had described to the Zoramites in Alma 32:42.
In this account, Alma went back to an event of his youth—became as a little child, as it were—and recalled taking the leap of faith to reach out to the Savior he had but heard of. The original account of Alma’s conversion (Mosiah 27) fails to include this central plea to Jesus. He does say he was “redeemed” (v29) but the Christology of his experience is implicit, at best. It isn’t until Alma’s extensive self-reflection that he realizes that “word” (i.e. “seed”) he himself had experimented on had indeed born fruit: it had born him—he was born of God. The “word” is Christ, and Alma had been spiritually begotten by him, (cf. Mosiah 5:7) and truly internalized his previous admonition to be born of God and receive “his image in your countenance.” (Alma 5:14)
Alma had become a markedly different person than he had been previously. “Is not this real?” his own words inquire; “whatsoever is light is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good.” (Alma 32:25) Had it not been for the personal transformation that Christ had wrought in his soul, Alma would have been a disbeliever, or at very least ambivalent about the truth claims regarding the incarnation of Christ: “If I had not been born of God I should not have known these things” (38:6) was his final appeal to his changed heart to secure himself back into his spiritual knowledge.
“Boldness, but not overbearance”
Grounded in his faith in Christ, it may seem that Alma is back to his old self: the rest of his words to his sons (Alma 37–42) are replete with didactic confidence. But there is still a difference. His charge to Helaman is focused on the here and now: transferring records, leadership counsel, all while disclaiming that some things “are not yet fully made known unto [him].” (37:11) To Shiblon, he admonishes wisdom and moderation, and warns against overbearing zealousness (38:10–15). And to Corianton, his most submissive audience, while he does expound doctrine extensively, his rhetorical approach is laced with logical arguments (42:16–22), he emphasizes compassion and understanding (41:14), and even admits that some of his teachings are merely his “opinion” (40:20).
This is not the same Alma as the Alma from his early ministry. Although we expect that his tone in speaking to his own sons would be different from his tone in speaking to the public, he nevertheless seems now to be more mature, more empathic, more nuanced, more humble, and more willing to engage rationality than he was in earlier years. By reframing his faith to lie centrally on Christ, he is secure in his belief system, confident in his experience of having been born of God, and eager to share his access to God with others.
Through the course of his life, Alma built—and rebuilt—his house upon the rock, “which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.” (Helaman 5:12)