So far in the Mormon’s summary in the Book of Mormon, everything seems to hinge on the first few chapters of Mosiah when King Benjamin delivers an eloquent sermon urging listeners to “put off the natural man” and become children of God. He explains conversion, urges listeners to put off their ego and accept grace, repent of their sins and becoming a new person in Christ, moving those in attendance into an intense experience of conversion, “having no more desire to do evil, but to do good continually”. Deep conversion, according to Benjamin, moves a person into love, compassion and service toward others, having no concern for wealth or fame, but rather a devoted life towards establishing Zion, which means the elimination of poverty and violence.
Alma 5 is no different. Alma the younger, who in Chapter 4 gives up the judgment seat, realizing the deep struggles happening within the church. He begins Chapter 5 with a plea to remember their ancestral deliverance. As I look back into Mosiah, I find three narratives, but Alma focuses in this chapter on the one most relevant to his specific family line.
For reasons not totally explained, King Benjamin was able to get almost universal conversion through the power of his sermon, earned, likely, through the deep trust and love his people had in him based on years of faithful service for and with his people. Benjamin passes on the kingdom to his son Mosiah and the people experience a period of peace in Zarehemla, though the details are not well documented.
Alma’s father, Alma, a member of King Noah’s court in a community established by Zeniff near Lamanite land was complicit in Noah’s wicked rule. Alma becomes Abinidi’s sole documented convert, possibly because Abinidi spoke within no obvious authoritative position. Alma, by contrast, preaching the words of Abinidi, converts a number of people, who afterward flee into the wilderness when discovered by Noah’s people. Through inner dissent and a Lamanite invasion, the people kill Noah, but then succumb to the Lamanites. The rest of the people, led by Limhi convert after suffering the consequences of war and bondage to the Lamanites. Both groups, led by Alma and Limhi make it back to Zarahemla. Alma establishes a church in Zarehamla. “And thus, notwithstanding there being many churches they were all one church, yeah even the church of God; for there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God.” (Mosiah 25:22)
But something happens with the next generation, a generation that didn’t hear King Benjamin’s speech or weren’t part of Limhi’s or Alma’s deliverance from Lamanite bondage. Like every new generation, they had to find their own path into deep conversion. But growing up within a believing, faithful community, perhaps, they experienced nothing to really push them into faith in God. Prominent men like King Benjamin’s sons, Alma’s son Alma, Nehor and Amlici and many others, developed skepticism in the coming Christ, in the need for conversion and even in the existence of sin, believing as Nehor did, “that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.” (Alma 1:4)
Through the prayers of faithful and concerned parents, an angel confronts Alma the younger and Mosiah’s four sons. This miraculous confrontation force them into a realization of the damage they have done as they have actively tried to tear down the church their parents have built. This event moves these men into deep, sincere conversion and a desire to repair the damage. Alma realizes his fairly to fully consider the painful lessons his father learned and God’s mercy in their ultimate deliverance.
Remember and Learn From History
Perhaps that’s why Alma the younger starts off his sermon in Alma 5 with a plea to remember.
And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church, have you sufficiently retained in aremembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has bdelivered their souls from hell? Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the abands of death, and the bchains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them.Alma 5:6-7
The stark contrast separating the two sides of conversion seems to mirror both Alma’s experience and the experience of his father, but it doesn’t reflect the conversion experiences sparked by Benjamin’s speech, nor does it reflect my own experience. I can’t really describe my life by a clean before/after hinging on one memorable experience. There’s no obvious story in my history that I can point to in quite this way. I don’t think Joseph Smith’s life, the person who kickstarted Mormonism, reflects this either. I believe, though, we need to remember and learn from our history so that deep knowledge can be passed down, keeping each new generation from the pain of having to relive passed mistakes. It feels like we struggle to do this well.
The Nature of Conversion
Alma’s next set of question begins in verse 14:
And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body? I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?Alma 5:14-16
Here, as in many other places in scripture, conversion is compared to birth. I think this is a nice metaphor but I think there is something literal about this point of view. Conversion as a birth experience brings us into a new life born into the Spirit, a child of God. This new life puts us on a life-long journey to become like God, walking a child, still immature at first but willing to grow. To learn how to care for and nurture others in an expansive way. We become a seed of Christ, another metaphor. His seed begins to sprout in us. We become new creatures, with a deeply changed heart. It doesn’t mean we’ll no longer make mistakes, but it means our life should be changed forever.
Alma’s Frustration or Why The Harsh Language?
After describing being spiritually born of God or the experience of a mighty change of heart, Alma describes the consequence of not doing so. The audience, he says later, is in a deep struggle.
18 Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect aremembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?Alma 5:18
It gets much worse later.
Yea, come unto me and bring forth works of righteousness, and ye shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire— For behold, the time is at hand that whosoever abringeth forth not good fruit, or whosoever doeth not the works of righteousness, the same have cause to wail and mourn.Alma 5:35-36
And again I say unto you, the Spirit saith: Behold, the aax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be bhewn down and cast into the fire, yea, a fire which cannot be consumed, even an unquenchable fire. Behold, and remember, the Holy One hath spoken it.Alma 5:52
I get the rhetoric to an extent. We all believe or want to believe we’re on the right path. I think conversion requires deep humility. That without a mighty change of heart or a spiritual birth, we can never really get on that path. We’ll always fall short. He describes God’s ultimate rejection if we fail to experience conversion which is a rough way to think about God. Perhaps it’s more like just being outside the fold, not God’s rejection of us, just us not accepting the invitation to become part of God’s family. Maybe we don’t feel like we fit in because we’ve lived our lives outside of Godly concerns.
But Alma gets violent in these later verses. An ax laid at the root of the tree, to be cut down and hewn into the fire? Harsh. I don’t believe it in any literal sense. I have a hard time imagining in a figurative sense, other than those people who are bitter here, engulfed in pride, jealousy and hatred for others, not able to feel engulfing love with others close to them, I don’t know.. fire?
He shifts slightly to address those in his audience that probably have already experienced conversion but had begun to slide from earlier commitments.
Not Just Once, But Again and Again, For All
And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?Mosiah 5:26
First of all, these phrases, experiencing “a mighty change of heart”, “singing the song of redeeming love”, can only approximate the experience of being born into the spirit, its mystical, revelatory, prophetic. It’s a loss of control, irrational, a step into the poetic. And this verse makes it clear, it’s an experience one should try to have throughout one’s life. I think, perhaps having conversion, being someone with deep love for others, it’s a change in how one is, not just in how one behaves. It’s the act of becoming, an identity, one tries never to move out of.
Life is not a resume to be filled up. Being on this earth is not about developing a list of achievements. Our primary task is to experience a conversion into grace. I use grace here as a replacement for Christ because I believe non-Christians have access to this as well. This born again experience is something all of us ought to experience, regardless of age.
And now I say unto you that this is the aorder after which I am called, yea, to preach unto my beloved brethren, yea, and every one that dwelleth in the land; yea, to preach unto all, both old and young, both bond and free; yea, I say unto you the aged, and also the middle aged, and the rising generation; yea, to cry unto them that they must repent and be bborn again.Alma 5:49
Alma lingers on all the way a person can stumble. We tend to get caught up in ranking sin. And certainly, the degree to one strays away from having their heart deeply enveloped in love for others, the greater likelihood they’ll behave in a way that causes deep damage to others. But Alma, for reasons not fully explained, lingers on specific examples – pride (Alma 5:28), envy (Alma 5:29), making a mock of others (Alma 5:30), heaping upon persecution of others (Alma 5:30), turning your back upon the poor and needy (Alma 5:55).
A better way of thinking of God as a being with infinite love, ever patient, ever merciful, ever beckoning upward. Consider, though, the specific way Alma describes this beckoning. It’s almost as if he’s tuned into a specific frequency and we have to be tuned into it to even hear it.
O ye workers of iniquity; ye that are apuffed up in the vain things of the world, ye that have professed to have known the ways of righteousness nevertheless have gone astray, as csheep having no dshepherd, notwithstanding a shepherd hath ecalled after you and is still calling after you, but ye will not fhearken unto his voice! Behold, I say unto you, that the good ashepherd doth call you; yea, and in his own name he doth call you, which is the name of Christ; and if ye will not bhearken unto the voice of the cgood shepherd, to the dname by which ye are called, behold, ye are not the sheep of the good shepherd.Alma 5:37, 38
God calls us in his own name. The way to hear is to tune in our lives as if we already were born into the Spirit. We need to have the desire to be like Christ to become like Christ. We have to take upon his name to hear his voice. One way to express that desire is through the very public event of baptism.
The Book of Mormon lives in binaries and I think these binaries can be hopeful or harmful depending on how they get interpreted. In one sense having only two options really flattens lived reality. It’s hard to really categories people, their actions, their motivations into only one of two options.
But in some sense, talking about church in this specific way is hopeful. To think that anything that leads people to do good comes from God should and does include a lot of institutions, religious and otherwise. No one church can be all things for all people. Having a plurality makes the world rich and interesting. As they come together in interfaith cooperation, I believe we can do more good in the world than if we’re forever in interfaith competition over membership.
In Alma 6, Alma describes the response and gives a nice window into what church should be about.
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. Nevertheless the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft, and join in afasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God.Alma 6:5-6
In Alma 7, Alma discovers the people in Gideon are doing well. The phrase in 7:3 that they continue to supplicate in God’s grace is another poetic phrases that’s really required because this sort of life in Christ is difficult to pin down precisely in language. Alma presumes in verse three that through grace, we can become blameless. I’m not sure this is instant. We sin in church, but if we do it while in Christ, we find a way toward healing and repair. Grace makes us blameless, lifting us out of our mistakes.
And behold, I have come having great hopes and much desire that I should find that ye had humbled yourselves before God, and that ye had continued in the supplicating of his grace, that I should find that ye were blameless before him, that I should find that ye were not in the awful dilemma that our brethren were in at Zarahemla. But blessed be the name of God, that he hath given me to know, yea, hath given unto me the exceedingly great joy of knowing that they are established again in the way of his righteousness.Alma 7:3,4
Finally, in the conclusion in chapter 7, Alma describes church beautifully:
And now I would that ye should be ahumble, and be bsubmissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being temperate in all things; being diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all times; asking for whatsoever things ye stand in need, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive. And see that ye have afaith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works.Alma 7:23, 24
It always comes back to this, faith, hope and charity, always abounding in good works – the outcomes of conversion.
Alma’s Final Testimony to the people in Zarahemla
In earlier chapters, we hear of Alma’s dramatic confrontation with the angel. The angelic intervention was an obvious turning point for Alma, forcing him to reckon with who he was and what he was doing, but more work was required. It’s interesting here, in the first full sermon presented from Alma, he doesn’t mention this experience at all and more interesting in his closing testimony he describes the work that went into his own conversion experience. It required fasting and prayer for many days – pure desire.
And this is not all. Do ye not suppose that I aknow of these things myself? Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety Behold, I say unto you they are made aknown unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have bfasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of crevelation which is in me. And moreover, I say unto you that it has thus been revealed unto me, that the words which have been spoken by our fathers are true, even so according to the spirit of prophecy which is in me, which is also by the manifestation of the Spirit of God.Alma 5: 45-47
I say unto you, that I know of myself that whatsoever I shall say unto you, concerning that which is to come, is true; and I say unto you, that I know that Jesus Christ shall come, yea, the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace, and mercy, and truth. And behold, it is he that cometh to take away the sins of the world, yea, the sins of every man who steadfastly believeth on his name.Alma 5:48
As an aside, I think describing Christ as being full of grace and mercy and truth has a poetic feel, but I’m wondering if there’s a need to include both grace and mercy here as complementary but not exact descriptions. I don’t think we should be quick to pass over truth. I think being born into Christ requires a firm loyalty to truth no matter how inconvenient they may be.
What does it mean to fast and pray on behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God? What does it mean to know not God. That ye had continued in the supplicating of his grace – what does that mean?
Notice the sins Alma is concerned with in Alma 7:6 -> unbelief, pride, heart set upon riches, heart set upon the vain things of the world, idol worship, worship of the true and living God, repentance and faith for a better world to come.
Alma 7:8 – The limits of prophetic knowledge.
Alma 7:15 – ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his comma
How is Alma so perceptive regarding the state of the souls in Gideon
Attributes of the converted soul: Alma 7:23 – Be humble, submissive, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of patience, long suffering, temperate, diligent, prayerful, grateful. Faith, hope, charity.