“Alma the Elder,” Ensign, Feb. 1977, 5
Many and varied have been the settings from which the Lord has called his prophets. Yet one of the most fascinating was that from which he called Alma the Elder, descendant of Nephi and father of a nine-generation line of prophets—one of the most fascinating families in scriptural history. This prophetic dynasty, which began with Alma more than a century and a half before the birth of Christ, ended more than 300 years after His coming.
The priests of Noah, characterized by debauchery, laziness, gross immorality, drunkenness, arrogance, and deceit—no more unlikely setting could have been found for a future prophet of God. Yet into that setting the Lord sent his prophet Abinadi, and out of that setting and the human recycling process of repentance He brought Alma, one of the greatest prophets of the Book of Mormon. Others were later to follow this godly man through the same patterns of change to great spiritual heights, making the Nephite record one of the greatest testaments in existence of the Lord’s willingness to forgive the truly penitent. We must note, however, that we do not know to what extent Alma participated in the sins of his fellow priests: we only know that he was one of the priests.
In attempting to reconstruct Alma’s life, it would be helpful to determine, if possible, how old he was when various significant events transpired in his life. Age brings a change in the attitudes of most of us. We view life from a different perspective when we are young than we do in middle age or in our more mature years. Knowing Alma’s age enables us to empathize more accurately with his feelings.
We know from the scriptures that Alma lived to be eighty-two years of age. (Mosiah 29:45.) If we assume that Alma died the same year as Mosiah—which one way of reading Mosiah 29:45–46 would suggest—this would place Alma’s birth at 173 B.C. If we can also assume that the dates at the bottom of the pages of the Book of Mormon are somewhat accurate (they were added after the Saints came to Utah) we can surmise that Alma was about twenty-three years old when Abinadi was first sent by the Lord to the priests of Noah and twenty-five when Alma was forced to flee into the wilderness. He is spoken of as a “young man” at that time. (See Mosiah 17:2.)
It would also be interesting to know something about Alma’s parents. Knowing parents often provides important clues to understanding a child. Unfortunately we know nothing about Alma’s, but we might assume they were part of the original group that left the land of Zarahemla to return to the land of Nephi as recorded in Omni, verses 27–30, and Mosiah, chapter 9. [Omni 1:27–30; Mosiah 9] The current dating in the Book of Mormon places that expedition at about the year 200 B.C., or about twenty-seven years before the birth of Alma.
By the time that Alma had grown to young manhood and become a priest of Noah, the people of Limhi had been away from Zarahemla nearly fifty years and had severed themselves entirely from the main body of the Nephites. They appear not even to have been able to find their way back to Zarahemla, and the Book of Mormon gives no indication of contact between the two lands after the expedition left for the land of Nephi.
If our assumptions are correct, Alma was a relatively young man when he first came under the influence of Abinadi. Perhaps Alma had not become fully steeped in the self-centered iniquities of Noah’s priests. When Abinadi came among them preaching repentance, that prophet was driven from their midst and went into hiding for two years before returning to meet his death by fire.
Where Abinadi went during those two years is uncertain, but when he returned it was for what was to become his final confrontation with Noah.
The record clearly documents the impact of that confrontation upon Alma. Abinadi’s message recalls the spirit of Jeremiah’s warnings in Lehi’s day. It promised destruction and turmoil to the people of Noah if they did not change their lifestyles, and Abinadi received the same response as Jeremiah and other prophets of doom. He was rejected and his life threatened. People seem willing to listen if good things are said about them; they are not so willing to listen to a recounting of their wrongdoings. Noah, for example, had gained his popularity by flattery. His people were willing to tolerate all manner of iniquity by Noah and his self-serving priests as long as they were soothed and lulled by flattering words. Alma the Younger was later to use the same tactics in attempting to overthrow the work of the Lord.
Perhaps in an effort to discredit Abinadi, one of the priests quoted from Isaiah concerning the blessedness of those who published good tidings and peace, who brought a message of salvation, joy, comfort, and singing because of the power of God and his protection of his people. The implication of the thrust was clear. The message of God’s prophets is one of good tidings and comfort. Abinadi was bringing bad tidings and discomfort to the people of the Lord. Therefore he did not fit the mold of a true prophet of God.
Abinadi countered with one of the most beautiful sermons in all of the scriptures concerning the mission of the Master. (See Mosiah 12–16.) That sermon was, in all probability, recorded by Alma. More was said than was recorded, but the part that has been retained is probably that which struck Alma with the greatest impact. Studying the content of the sermon can show us the gospel truths that touched Alma’s heart. Knowing full well the iniquity testified to by Abinadi, Alma pleaded with Noah for the preservation of the prophet’s life. In doing so he incurred the wrath of Noah and was forced to flee for his own life.
From what we can glean from the account, it appears that Alma spent the next two decades or more in the wilderness, first at the waters of Mormon and then in the land of Helam. (See footnote dates for Mosiah, chapters 17 and 24. [Mosiah 17; Mosiah 24]) This would mean that Alma, when he finally went to the land of Zarahemla, must have been somewhere near fifty years of age. It seems likely that he would have done a major part of the rearing of his young family while living in the wilderness with the other exiles from Noah’s people.
The family of Alma presents another one of those interesting blind spots in the scriptures. Who was Alma’s wife? Had she married Alma while he was one of the priests of Noah? If so, did she also come through the experience of conversion with him? Or was she one of the converts who joined with the young prophet at the waters of Mormon? In either case, their early years together would provide an interesting insight into adjustment and young love. It would also help us to know more about Alma the Younger if we knew the date of his birth. How much, if any, of the wilderness experience did he encounter? We know that there were others in the family, since he is referred to as “one of the sons of Alma.” (Mosiah 27:8.) Where did he fit into the family? At what point did he begin to show the rebellious qualities which characterize his earlier life?
All that we know about this twenty-year period of the elder Alma’s life is that after leaving the priests of Noah, he retired to one of the more dangerous areas of the land, a portion of the country infested during seasons with wild beasts. (See Mosiah 18:4.) Another interesting question arises: Did the early converts to the gospel risk danger from the animals as well as from Noah’s government by going into the area around the waters of Mormon to listen to Alma’s teachings?
At the waters of Mormon, Alma began gathering the faithful and preaching the message of Abinadi to them. The message was simple and direct: repentance, redemption, and faith in Christ. But more about Alma is evident. What a change from the life-stance of Noah’s priests is seen in his teachings! His deep compassion and intense humility sparkle from every passage recorded from that period.
As the saints gathered at the waters, Alma spoke to them of bearing each other’s burdens—probably knowing little of the burdens that group would one day bear. He spoke of mourning with those who mourn, of empathizing with true concern for the downtrodden. He called upon them to “stand as witnesses of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” (Mosiah 18:9.) It was a bold stance for people in an unpopular minority, where such a stance might well mean death, and few prophets have left us with a more penetrating insight into the nature of the baptismal covenant.
Four hundred and fifty people eventually entered into this covenant with Alma, enough to form a medium-sized ward today. The love of this group was to become almost legendary among the Nephites. Later the name of Mormon was to be given to the compiler of the Nephite record and to become the title by which Latter-day Saints are commonly known throughout the world. Hopefully, the name will bring to our minds more than just the name of the compiler of the volume, but also the happenings and covenants made by that little group who, by the waters of Mormon, knit themselves together in the unity of the gospel. Led by the light of the Master, they obtained a singleness of purpose, a common trust, and a love that made the entire experience possible.
Nephite priesthood organization from that time until the time of Christ is traceable to Alma’s group. Priests were ordained to be in charge of each group of fifty, and, unlike the priests of Noah, they were instructed to earn their own living and to seek diligently for the guidance of the Lord rather than for the desires of their own appetites. Each member of the group was admonished to impart of his goods, according to his ability, to the general welfare of the group. (See Mosiah 18:18–29.)
Ultimately the group was discovered and forced to flee deeper into the wilderness, settling in a land they named Helam, after the first convert to join Alma in the waters of baptism. For all we know, this may have been the first time all of them were forced to leave their homes and to become an autonomous group. We are not certain how long Alma was at the waters of Mormon or how long he was at Helam, but it appears that the total time at the two locations was over twenty years—a fact easily overlooked in a cursory reading of the Book of Mormon, but a vital factor in the development of Alma’s character.
In the wilderness Alma labored to teach his people love; the Lord was also teaching them patience. It was just a matter of time before their new location was discovered—this time by the Lamanites. (See Mosiah 23:25–29.) While searching for the people of Noah who had escaped from the land of Nephi under the direction of Noah’s son, Limhi, with a small expeditionary force from the land of Zarahemla, under Ammon, the Lamanite armies happened upon Alma’s people. This army had with them some of the reprobate priests of Noah who had deserted the main portion of the Nephite colony in Nephi, as well as their wives and children. Finding themselves without companionship, these priests had stolen and taken as wives a number of Lamanite girls, and had begun the rearing of second families. (See Mosiah 20:1–5.) Because of their knowledge of writing and record keeping, the priests had become leaders of the Lamanites and now were placed in authority over the colony of Helam.
Amulon, the leader of this group, had known Alma when both were with the priests of Noah. His hatred for one who had formerly been a fellow priest was intense. Not only did Amulon persecute those who had joined the church, but he also instructed the children of his people to persecute the children of the saints. One wonders again if Alma the Younger was among the persecuted. Assuming that he was alive at this time, did his bitterness against the church have roots in this experience?
Because Alma and his people were forbidden to pray vocally, their prayers became silent petitions to the Lord. As they prayed for deliverance, the Lord responded, but with a different solution. Rather than removing the burdens that they had covenanted to bear many years before, the Lord helped them to become equal to the burdens placed upon them. Perhaps this contains a lesson for us—not to petition for the removal of the burden, but to pray to grow in strength; not to make the burden the size we can carry, but to make us equal to the load to be borne.
After this lesson had been learned, the Lord released the saints from their captors and allowed them to go on to the land of Zarahemla and a reunion with the major body of the Nephites. (See Mosiah 24:25.) We do not know how large the group was that Alma brought with him. After twenty years in the wilderness it seems that it would have grown considerably. And one of the more interesting additions to their number was a group of children of the apostate priests, youth who had rejected their parents and the corruption of their ways. Having been commanded to persecute the children of the saints, they had been converted instead, and had joined with them in the more abundant life of the Christian brotherhood. (Mosiah 25:12.)
The arrival of Alma was an occasion of great rejoicing among the Nephites. By this time he was probably near fifty years of age, a man of much maturity, experience, and insight into life and its problems. His leadership ability was welcomed by Mosiah, the young son and successor of Benjamin. The young king was probably in his early thirties. His father had passed away and left him with the responsibilities of the kingdom perhaps as recently as two years before. Now he had the additional responsibility of relocating the new immigrants from Nephi in his lands.
Mosiah, who was a prophet and seer as well as king (see Mosiah 28:10–16), placed Alma in charge of the churches throughout Zarahemla. Further, Mosiah gave Alma the responsibility of organizing the church throughout the land, perhaps in the fashion of the wilderness group.
It was at this point, after arriving in the land of Zarahemla, that Alma faced one of the most difficult situations of his life. The saints he had worked with in the wilderness had been deeply dedicated to the affairs of the kingdom. They had been drawn from among the spiritually devout and purified in the fire of the wilderness experience. Through adversity they had been driven close together. On the other hand, the saints in Zarahemla had come through a different experience. Their sense of dedication, in some ways, was probably less intense, especially among the younger members of the community.
Those who were too young to remember the dramatic experience of the final speech of Benjamin had rejected the church and sought to destroy its efforts. Using deceit and flattery they had enticed many of the church members into transgressions. Mosiah had four sons who eventually joined their cause. Alma the Younger was also to join with them. Knowing that this type of influence within the church would completely destroy its effectiveness, the priests brought the matter to Alma’s attention. (See Mosiah 26:7.)
Alma was torn. He himself had been caught up in such transgression as a youth; yet, through the help of the Lord, he had repented and found peace within the church. He knew full well the power of the Lord to work with the one-time rebellious. On the other hand he also knew the destructiveness of evildoing. He had experienced it—or had seen it—with the priests of Noah.
Feeling overwhelmed by the matter, Alma tried to turn the problem over to King Mosiah. Mosiah also may have been in a quandary. It is possible that his four sons were involved in the problem by this time. Both Mosiah and Alma felt the situation intensely. They were experiencing a feeling that I imagine our Father often feels: How can I cast any away and put them from my presence—especially my own children? Mosiah deferred to Alma once more, forcing the high priest to make the final decision.
Alma went before the Lord with his troubled spirit, fearing to do anything, feeling that he might act in a manner displeasing to the Lord. He had to know the Lord’s mind on the matter. In response to Alma’s passionate plea, the voice of the Lord spoke to him. (See Mosiah 26:14–32.)
First, the Lord soothed Alma’s troubled mind, letting him know how pleased he was with Alma’s dedication and desire to know; he was promised eternal life.
Next, the Lord spoke to Alma of the importance of compassion in the judging process. It was a responsibility not to be trifled with. The Lord was willing to forgive again and again on condition of repentance; his servants should do the same. He who would not forgive his neighbor’s transgressions when he says that he repents would bring himself under condemnation. (See Mosiah 26:31.) Finally the Lord concluded by informing Alma that excommunication was essential in the case of the unrepentant.
So important was this information to Alma that he immediately recorded it in order that he might have it as a guideline for future action. Only then did he begin the process of setting the church in order. Those who confessed their sins and repented he readily forgave, as far as he had authority to do so as the head of the Church. Those who would not confess and repent were severed from the church. The result was renewed stability in the kingdom.
Unfortunately, Alma’s son and namesake was one of those found to be in rebellion. Alma the Younger, who by this time may have been in his twenties or thirties, had decided with the help of Mosiah’s sons to destroy the work which was so important to his father. Secretly he had gone about with the enemies of the church undermining the work of the Lord.
Alma and his people had continued to plead forcefully with the Lord that the younger Alma might be brought to his senses. The Lord, hearing their pleadings, and knowing the worth of Alma the younger to the future of the church, chose to intercede forcefully in his life, as he would do later in the life of the apostle Paul. An angel of the Lord was sent in power to strike fear into the hearts of the rebels. Alma the Younger was singled out for a special experience. He was rendered totally incapacitated. Unable to talk, unable to move, and plunged into the terrors of hell, he was brought immobile before his father, the high priest. (See Mosiah 27:17–20; Alma 36.)
The pain and the joy of the elder Alma must have been intense as he looked upon the still body of his son, seized with a deathlike coma. The pain, because the elder Alma knew what his son was going through; the joy, because he knew that it was of God. The priests of the church were gathered around the seemingly lifeless body, and a vigil of fasting and prayer was begun.
For two days and two nights the watch continued. Alma the Elder probably slept little as he watched the body for signs of life. While the son passed through the terrors of hell to the joy of salvation, the father continued to plead with the Lord for the physical and spiritual well-being of his son. Perhaps only one who has come close to losing a loved one can share with Alma the sense of spiritual exertion, or the sense of relief at the conclusion of the vigil with the rebirth of his son into a new life.
From that point forward the scriptures are silent concerning the elder Alma. The moments when father and son came together to share those deep feelings concerning the gospel are passed over without comment. We do know that Alma lived to see his son become a central figure in the church and government of the Nephites. Before Alma’s death, Mosiah’s sons left for missionary work among the Lamanites, and Mosiah wrote new laws for his people and changed their form of government from kings to judges. Alma the Younger became both high priest and chief judge over the land.
Alma the Elder could have asked for nothing better than the success of his son. At eighty-two years of age he died, “having lived to fulfil the commandments of God.” (Mosiah 29:45.) No more fitting tribute could have been given to him than that given by the writer who penned his epitaph: “And thus ended the reign of the kings over the people of Nephi; and thus ended the days of Alma, who was the founder of their church.” (Mosiah 29:47; italics added.)