Alma 6


MDC Contents


Nephite Political Geography: In chapter 6, Alma begins a tour of different cities. It is clear from the Book of Mormon that these are cities that have some type of relationship with Zarahemla, and it is equally clear that the relationship does not require that those cities have exactly the same religion as Zarahemla. Nevertheless, these are Nephite cities, and we should understand the difference between these Nephite cities that are related to but somewhat independent of Zarahemla, and Lamanite cities which have no relationship to Zarahemla whatsoever.

The interrelationships of the cities in the Book of Mormon may be best elucidated by comparison to the developing political regions in the Maya region during this same time period. The earliest settlements were separate villages, but during the time period of the early Book of Mormon (600-300 BC) these villages began to increase in size and to dominate certain surrounding territory. By the time of Alma's journey in the Book of Mormon, archaeology finds that there were certain sites that were considered "central sites" with other villages and areas looking to that central site for leadership (Matthews, Peter, and Gordon R. Willey. "Prehistoric polities of the Pasion region." In: Classic Maya Political History. School of American Research, Cambridge Press. 1991, p. 58).

While the exact nature of the political interrelationships of these Maya cities was to each other, it does appear that they considered themselves as part of a larger group (the anthropologists use the term "polity") that just the cities themselves. Recent years have seen great strides in the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs, and one of the types of glyphs is known as an "Emblem Glyph." This was originally thought to be the name of a city, but the discovery of different kings in different city using the same Emblem Glyph suggests that this glyph designated the polity rather than the city (Schele, Linda. "An Epigraphic History of the Western Maya Region." In: Classic Maya Political History. School of American Research, Cambridge Press. 1991, p. 77; Matthews and Willey p. 52).

This appears to be the situation described in the Book of Mormon. Zarahemla is both a place and a land (Omni 1:12; Mosiah 1:1; Alma 2:15 for just a few examples of the "land of Zarahemla). Clearly under the political influence of Zarahemla are other cities that have some relationship to Zarahemla, but which are also pretty independent - as will be seen in Alma's journeys.

This interrelationship among cities will be key to our understanding of Nephite history for the remainder of the Book of Mormon. The particular issues that arise in the Book of Mormon will stem from a very different means of association that modern readers are familiar with. We must remember that there is no police force, and no standing army. There is nothing that requires the acquiescence of the outlying cities to the "center site." Ross Hassig explains how this loose association played out in the later Aztec political field:

"The effectiveness of a political system also depends on its goals: the perceived costs of compliance must not outweigh the perceived benefits unless the dominant polity is, in fact, prepared to exercise force on its own behalf. For example, if the dominant polity has a goal of keeping the populace of the subordinate polity from rebelling, it may exert power by demanding that the people be repressed by their own leaders. Regardless of their own sentiments, the leaders will do so (using their own force) if they perceive that such repression will forestall the dominant polity's use of force, perhaps in the form of a punitive invasion. In short, as long as the subordinate polity perceives the benefits as greater than the costs, it will generally comply with the desires of the dominant polity. The very real limitations of such a political system arise from different perceptions of the power of the dominant polity. As the costs to the subordinates rise, the benefits decline, and compliance becomes increasingly unreliable." (Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare. University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, p. 18).

Hassig is describing a situation that is later in time than the Book of Mormon, but which nevertheless has direct relevance to our study of the political geography of the Book of Mormon. Zarahemla is a center place, with dependent areas, including cites. There is nothing that forces these cities to remain under Zarahemla's influence, and breaches of the relationship may come at any time, since the cities really are independent. However, while there is a benefit from their association (for defense or economics, for example) the dependent cities will behave according to the will of the center. When differences arise, the center place must find some way to exert its positive influence. For the Aztecs, that response was always military. For Alma in Zarahemla, the response was not military, but a missionary journey. Rather than attempting to force the various cities back into alliance with might of arms, Alma will attempt the same thing through the might of spirit.

Alma 6:1
1 And now it came to pass that after Alma had made an end of speaking unto the people of the church, which was established in the city of Zarahemla, he ordained priests and elders, by laying on his hands according to the order of God, to preside and watch over the church.

Mormon's transition does not clearly give a time frame between the closing of his sermon in the church in Zarahemla and this organizational process. It is possible that these ordinations occurred soon after, and it is also possible that these ordinations occurred some time after. Nevertheless, we are justified in supposing this to be a shorter rather than longer time period because Alma is preparing to continue his preaching in other areas attached to Zarahemla. Alma's apparent urgency in this missionary journey would suggest that he not tarry too long.

Alma's Ecclesiastical Organization: As Alma prepares to leave he "ordained priests and elders… to preside and watch over the church." Clearly there are two different types of offices in Alma's ecclesiastical organization, but what were their functions, and are their other offices? We would commit an error of historical interpretation if we were to assume that the same names in Alma's church as there are in the modern church would indicate that the functions are similar. Indeed, as we will see, the functions of these positions as they can be determined from the Book of Mormon are quite different from their identically named modern counterparts.

The earliest indication of ecclesiastical organization in the New World comes from Nephi: "2 Ne. 5:26 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did consecrate Jacob and Joseph, that they should be priests and teachers over the land of my people." We have two different functions, priest and teacher, but only two people. Since the functions are listed in the plural, and there are only two, it would appear that at this early point in the Book of Mormon there is no clear distinction between a priest and a teacher. Rather than assume modern definitions of a "teacher" we should rather suppose it to be the more typical didactive function. Thus Jacob and Joseph were priests who taught their people, and were hence simultaneously teachers.

The early combination of the two functions apparently did not last, as later verses would appear to make a distinction between the persons of the priests and the persons of the teachers:

"Jarom 1:11 Wherefore, the prophets, and the priests, and the teachers, did labor diligently, exhorting with all long-suffering the people to diligence; teaching the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given; persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was. And after this manner did they teach them."

By Jarom's time it would appear that priests and teachers were not the same persons. Similarly, we find: "Mosiah 25:21 Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma."

Even though there do appear to be two available functions, it should be remembered that the function of priest and teacher could be combined in the same person, as they were with Jacob and Joseph. In Mosiah we find Benjamin ordaining priests for the purpose of teaching: "Mosiah 6:3And again, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of all these things…[he] also had appointed priests to teach the people, that thereby they might hear and know the commandments of God, and to stir them up in remembrance of the oath which they had made…

Even Alma's first ordination of priests clearly combined the function of teaching into the other functions of the priest: "Mosiah 18:18And it came to pass that Alma, having authority from God, ordained priests; even one priest to every fifty of their number did he ordain to preach unto them, and to teach them concerning the things pertaining to the kingdom of God."

While it is possible that there were two distinct offices, it is also possible that "priest and teacher" was a definition of the function that was given to a single person. This may be the best way to read Mosiah's charge to Alma concerning church governance:

Mosiah 25:19-21
19 And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church.
20 Now this was done because there were so many people that they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly;
21 Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma.

Verse 19 appears to confirm two separate offices, as Mosiah grants Alma the right to ordain "priests and teachers over every church." The problem comes when the next verses are used to define what "priests and teachers" will do. Verse 20 talks about the teacher governing, and verse 21 talks of the priest teaching. Clearly, priests were in an administrative role, with the office of "high priest" being the man with the ultimate ecclesiastical authority in Zarahemla (the title was first given to Alma: Mosiah 23:16, the designation does not exist prior to this point in the Book of Mormon).

It would appear safest, therefore, to assume that "priest and teacher" described aspects of the same office that was formally named "priest" and also functioned as a "teacher". Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that there were separate teachers. We cannot ascribe any function to this title than that of instruction in the word of God, a function clearly filled by other people. It may be that "priest" was a formal ecclesiastical position, and "teacher" was a lesser position not involved with governance.

The designation of "elder" is even yet more problematic as it is rarely used. The title first appears in Alma 4:

Alma 4:7 Now this was the cause of much affliction to Alma, yea, and to many of the people whom Alma had consecrated to be teachers, and priests, and elders over the church; yea, many of them were sorely grieved for the wickedness which they saw had begun to be among their people.

As with the term "teacher," "elder" shows here as a separate category from the more common "priests." Unfortunately, the only information we have on the function of the "elders" is that they were "over the church," but so were the priests and teachers.

The next important information about the elders comes from the appointment of Nephihah as chief judge:

16 And he selected a wise man who was among the elders of the church, and gave him power according to the voice of the people, that he might have power to enact laws according to the laws which had been given, and to put them in force according to the wickedness and the crimes of the people.
17 Now this man's name was Nephihah, and he was appointed chief judge; and he sat in the judgment-seat to judge and to govern the people.

While the verse does not specifically give us information on the role of the "elders" we can extract some possibilities. The first important aspect is that there were multiple "elders" in the church. Secondly, at least one could be termed a "wise man" and capable of becoming a chief judge. We don't see more information on elders during Alma's time. The next information on the elders comes Moroni, so the time difference suggests the possibility that there may have been some alteration in the function over the years.

First, we find that the twelve disciples were referred to as elders: "Moro. 3:1 … the disciples, who were called the elders of the church…
In their capacity of elders, they have ecclesiastical authority: "Moro. 6:7 And they were strict to observe that there should be no iniquity among them; and whoso was found to commit iniquity, and three witnesses of the church did condemn them before the elders, and if they repented not, and confessed not, their names were blotted out, and they were not numbered among the people of Christ."

This little evidence allows no more than a speculative reconstruction, but we can assay one based upon the name and the give functions. Rather than equate the ancient term "elder" with the modern priesthood office of Elder, it is probably better to assume that it refers to respected older men, the way "elders of the village" might be understood. These would be men whose position in the community transferred to the church, and they would have been a governing body. Clearly, they were under the auspices of the high priest, and probably the priest in Alma's day.

The calling of twelve disciples during Christ's visit apparently had an effect on the nature of church organization. With the emphasis on the twelve rather than a single high priest, it is probable that the "elders" became the ecclesiastical body that followed in the footsteps of the twelve, and that the governance of the church later shifted to these elders. This would have been allowed if the elders had had some type of governing function in the pre-Christ church, a function that is at least suggested by the case of Nephihah being chosen from among them. To be accepted in the greater society, Nephihah must have already had some credentials as a leader, and an "elder" of the people would have been sufficient.

Of course this is speculative, and dependent upon reading "elder," and earlier "teacher" as descriptions rather than titles. In the world of the Book of Mormon, those descriptions fit the social situation better than would an imposition of the modern functions backwards to the Book of Mormon peoples.

A last category of religious functionary that deserves examination is the role of the prophet. By far, the largest number of references to prophets in the Book of Mormon have their most clear antecedent in the brass plates. Prophets are invoked as part of the sacred record and their sacred teachings. Nevertheless, there were prophets among the Nephites. What was their role?

The first clear reference to contemporary prophets is found in Enos:

Enos 1:22-23
22 And there were exceedingly many prophets among us. And the people were a stiffnecked people, hard to understand.
23 And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things-stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction. And after this manner do I write concerning them.

Enos' reference to prophets has the prophets fulfilling a very Old Testament role. They do not necessarily appear as leaders in the church, but very clearly appear as those who would bring the warnings from God to the people. Indeed, Enos' reference to prophets and the reaction of the people has a very familiar flavor to Old Testament readers. The prophets come, and the people are stiff-necked and do not listen.

Jarom also mentions prophets in very similar terms:

Jarom 1:10-11
10 And it came to pass that the prophets of the Lord did threaten the people of Nephi, according to the word of God, that if they did not keep the commandments, but should fall into transgression, they should be destroyed from off the face of the land.
11 Wherefore, the prophets, and the priests, and the teachers, did labor diligently, exhorting with all long-suffering the people to diligence; teaching the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given; persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was. And after this manner did they teach them.

In these verses, the prophets speak for the Lord, and they are one of the set of people who are trying to teach the people. Once again, however, it is important to notice that there is no indication that there is a prophet in an official ecclesiastical capacity. Once again, this follows the Old Testament model of the prophet.

A possible confirmation of this separation of prophets from the direct governance comes from Benjamin:

W of M 1:16
16 … it came to pass that king Benjamin, with the assistance of the holy prophets who were among his people-

We know that Benjamin was at this time the leader both politically and religiously. In spite of Benjamin's position at the head of the religious organization (remembering that this precedes Alma and therefore precedes "churches" in Zarahemla) we have prophets (in the plural) who assist him. This continues to paint a very Old Testament function for prophets in the New World. Indeed, Ammon's brethren in his missionary efforts are deemed "prophets" (Alma 20:15).
When we see prophets in the Book of Mormon, therefore, we should see them as Old Testament prophets, those who are inspired to warn the people for God. They do not appear to have any ecclesiastical function.

To recap the organization of Alma's church, we can define two clear offices, with a probable third. There are priests who appear to have the ultimate authority in the church. Each local priest was subject to the high priest (Alma at this point) who resided in Zarahemla. Each church would also probably have a counsel of elders. In an ancient Mesoamerican setting these would likely be the leading men of the various clans in that church area. These men had some say in the governance of the church, a function that was probably expanded to the role of the elders in Moroni's time. While the overt discussion of contemporaneous prophets in the Book of Mormon appears to cease with Benjamin, it is possible that other prophets would appear in Mosiah's time as well.

It is an unanswerable question as to whether there were prophets in the time of Alma's church. There is no direct evidence for them. It is possible that after the formal organization of the church with Alma that the Lord communicated through the newly clarified ecclesiastical lines rather than the former more diffuse organization that existed when there was no separation between politics and religion.

Alma 6:2
2 And it came to pass that whosoever did not belong to the church who repented of their sins were baptized unto repentance, and were received into the church.
Alma 6:3
3 And it also came to pass that whosoever did belong to the church that did not repent of their wickedness and humble themselves before God-I mean those who were lifted up in the pride of their hearts-the same were rejected, and their names were blotted out, that their names were not numbered among those of the righteous.
Alma 6:4
4 And thus they began to establish the order of the church in the city of Zarahemla.

Verse 4 is the summary of verses 1-3. In the first verse we have Alma organizing people to govern the church, in verse 2 we have the positive effect of the ordination, and in verse three the negative aspect of the organization.

When Alma spoke in Zarahemla he spoke to the church. Verses 2 and 3 are clearly referring to those who are not in the church. Therefore we may presume that the organization that Alma put into place was precisely designed to begin a mission to the people of Zarahemla to include them in the church.

From a social perspective, we must understand the picture of Zarahemla that is developing. Beginning with Mosiah and Alma the Elder we had a tacit separation of church and state that became a full blown separation of ideologies. Under Alma the Younger we now have a population that is under the same political aegis, but which follows two different religious paths. In the ancient world, this separation is not as simple as it appears in the modern world, as the conceptual split between religion and the definition of how the world works was not made - there was no science separate from religion.

Thus Zarahemla was home to two incompatible ways of viewing the "reality" of how the world works. This was more divisive that two political parties, a modern situation to which some might compare the Zarahemla problem. To place the conflict into more modern terms, it might be similar to the conflicts between the extremely conservative Muslim countries and Western ideals. While they are worlds apart there is manageable conflict. If those two ideals had significant followers in the same city, the tensions would run high. This is more the picture of Zarahemla that we should understand. There were incompatible ideas of how the world ought to work, and populations upholding each within the city and within the other cities under Zarahemla's umbrella. The tensions might be held in check for a while, but we will begin to see them escalate in the next several years of Alma the Younger's reign.

It is precisely this ideological separation that Alma is trying to heal, and he is trying to heal the division by converting the population to the way of the Lord. In verse 2 it indicates that they do have some success. It is verse 3 that is most important for future events, however. There are those who are not converted. Those who continue to believe in the alternate world view or religion do not leave. They stay in Zarahemla. Future events will clearly indicate that they were not a small number, and that they would become even more influential.

Alma 6:5
5 Now I would that ye should understand that the word of God was liberal unto all, that none were deprived of the privilege of assembling themselves together to hear the word of God.
Alma 6:6
6 Nevertheless the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft, and join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God.

Verses 5 and 6 must be read together to make sense of Mormon's editorial addition. Mormon tells us that all Zarahemlaites were allowed to assemble together to hear the word of God. Among those in Zarahemla, the believers in the church were commanded to do so. Mormon recognizes the division in the society, and notes that the church (which was in control of the political organization) did not exclude the part of society with which they did not agree.

The contrast between the church that gathered and the law allowing all to gather tells us that the people of the church created fair laws. It may also tell us that while some chose not to assemble with the church, they might have assembled to worship their own god or gods. Mormon gives us information that further allows us to see how the contentions developed in Zarahemlaite society. Part of the speed with which they arose is that they were not directly suppressed, but allowed as part of the "liberal" laws ("…God was liberal unto all…).

Considering the social situation that will be developing, it is significant that the command to the church was to gather together in "mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God." This is more than religious concern. The division between churchmen and non-churchmen would not be similar to different denominations today, but was a far more serious social problem. Alma organized an effort to convert the non-churchmen, and then an effort to pray for those who did not convert.

Alma 6:7
7 And now it came to pass that when Alma had made these regulations he departed from them, yea, from the church which was in the city of Zarahemla, and went over upon the east of the river Sidon, into the valley of Gideon, there having been a city built, which was called the city of Gideon, which was in the valley that was called Gideon, being called after the man who was slain by the hand of Nehor with the sword.

The purpose in giving up the judgment seat was to free Alma to travel to other cities. These are cities that are separate from Zarahemla, but would have belonged to the "land" of Zarahemla. His first stop is to a nearby city called Gideon, in the valley of Gideon. Mormon reminds us that we have recently seen that this was the location of the confrontation between Gideon (the captain from the city of Lehi-Nephi) and Nehor, the proponent of the alternate worldview or religion. We may expect that the church was not completely dominant in Gideon both because Nehor saw it as a ripe place for his own proselyting, and Alma saw it as a place where he needed to preach. Thus Gideon, like Zarahemla itself, was very probably split between the churchmen and the non-churchmen.

Alma 6:8
8 And Alma went and began to declare the word of God unto the church which was established in the valley of Gideon, according to the revelation of the truth of the word which had been spoken by his fathers, and according to the spirit of prophecy which was in him, according to the testimony of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who should come to redeem his people from their sins, and the holy order by which he was called. And thus it is written. Amen.

Mormon leaves this brief chapter with the declaration of Alma's purpose in preaching in Gideon.

Textual: This is the end of a chapter in the 1830 edition. Why do we have such a short chapter? This is an intermediate chapter between two sermons, and provides the historical ligature needed to tie the two sermons together. Mormon's point is not history, but rather doctrine, and so he gives the essential history needed to give us the context in which we can place the next sermon.

      by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2000