The Testimony of Alma: “Give Ear to My Words”
[Designer, insert Teichert image, conversion of Alma the Younger.]
The Testimony of Alma: “Give Ear to My Words”
John W. Welch
John W. Welch (WELCHJ@lawgate.byu.edu) is the Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University.
Address given at Campus Education Week in August 2003 and rebroadcast on KBYU and BYUTV.
In Alma 36, at the very beginning of his masterful blessing to his firstborn son, Helaman, Alma admonished, “My son, give ear to my words” (v. 1). We would all do well to follow this counsel, to give special heed to the powerful testimony of Alma, and to recognize the doctrinal purity and power that permeates the texts of this remarkable father, teacher, prophet, high priest, chief judge, governor, soldier, and record keeper. It is hard to say enough about this spiritual, dynamic, and articulate disciple of Jesus Christ.
The speeches of Alma in the Book of Mormon are among the very richest chapters of the entire book. I think it is fair to call them a doctrinal epicenter of the Book of Mormon. Alma’s words bear repeated dissection, and they reward persistent pondering. I know that, like most of the Book of Mormon, the words of Alma will wear me out long before I wear them out.
But beyond his conversion, Alma became a strong public servant and influential political figure in Nephite civilization. In a way, Alma was the John Marshall of his day. Like Marshall, the formative chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, Alma served as the inaugural chief judge under the new Nephite legal system of the reign of the judges. He would also become a sort of Winston Churchill of his people, holding Nephite society together at a time of civil war, personally going out in one-on-one hand-to-hand combat against the arch-kingman Amlici; Alma’s words and deeds successfully galvanized the Nephites and led them to victory as Churchill did for the Allies in World War II.
Concurrently, Alma became something of the Thomas Aquinas of the Nephite world— his theological discourses, especially my favorites Alma 13 and 42, are among the richest doctrinal expositions in scripture. Alma persuasively articulated truth as he confronted formidable theological opponents—from the priestcrafty Nehorites and the Rameumpton-building Zoramites, to the logician Zeezrom and the philosophizing Korihor. Readers should approach Alma’s intellect and his keenly chosen words with the same receptive respect one uses in approaching the words of the greatest masters in world literature. In 1997, Noel Reynolds and I were able to participate in a private weeklong scholarly conference, which was organized by an exclusive non-LDS thinktank, in order to study the political theory implicit in the Book of Mormon’s teachings about liberty. After several days of intense scrutinizing, scholars who for the first time encountered the brilliant discourses of Alma expressed high regard for the depth and power of his compelling insights.
The testimony of Alma is indeed the spinal cord that runs through the backbone of Nephite prophetic history. Genealogically, we have an interesting situation here, with Alma standing in a position that we do not often appreciate, as you will see on this chart.
Alma’s Family Line
Alma the Elder
Alma the Younger
In light of the importance of his texts, I wish to examine four sources of power in the words of Alma the Younger; I hope that these four points will help you gain greater appreciation and understanding of his words and testimony. First, I will show how he speaks with an authentic voice of true personal experience. Second, he knows his audiences and tailors his words to meet their particular needs and circumstances. Third, he makes very skillful and creative use of language and literature. And fourth, he bears open testimony of his deepest spiritual desires and of vital eternal truths.
We are the great beneficiaries of Alma’s remarkable candor about his own mistakes and successes. Alma spoke as a personal witness and bore personal testimony of the things that he had experienced and learned. As a writer, he does not hold back from us his personal character. He lets it spill out. As a speaker, he is personal and intimate. If we are receptive readers, we can know this man. We can see his character as he shares with us his innermost thoughts.
Each prophet, of course, has his own personality. Their personalities come through in their vocabulary, out of their life experiences, and through the concerns that deeply drive them. The prophet Jeremiah was different from the prophet Isaiah. President Brigham Young’s personality was different from President David O. McKay’s. In Alma’s case, consider two key parts of his life that distinctively give extraordinary power to his words: his conversion, and his work as a jurist.
That conversion experience was real. That reality surfaces again and again. As I have charted out elsewhere in print, subtle linguistic evidence makes it apparent that Alma’s three accounts of his conversion in Mosiah 27, Alma 36, and Alma 38 all originated from the same man. Remarkably, even though these tellings come from three different times or stations in Alma’s life, and even though they are separated in the Book of Mormon by many words, events, conflicts, and distractions reported in more than a hundred pages of printed text, Alma’s distinctive words and phrases come through loud and clear, bearing the unmistakable imprints of a single distinctive person. His conversion story becomes the heart of his farewell testimony to his son Shiblon in Alma 38, who, Alma reminds, had been delivered by God from bonds and stoning at the hands of the Zoramites just as Alma had been delivered from his own spiritual bondage and work of destruction. His conversion stands behind his words of warning to the people in Ammonihah that they will be utterly destroyed if they, as he had once done, sought to “destroy his people” (9:19); and again, the “marvelous light” (36:20) of that conversion stands behind his encouragement to the poor in Antionum, who are told that they can plant the seed of truth, feel it swell, and taste its light and know as he came to know that the truth is good and that it is real (32:35). In these and many other ways, Alma’s indelible conversion gives his words potent credibility as he speaks incessantly from this platform of real personal experience.
Because of his own fortuitous redemption, Alma’s character is infused with patience and generosity toward others. He generously dedicated himself to proclaiming the word, because, as he says in Alma 6:5, “the word of God was liberal unto all.” Alma turned no one away. He went to the poor, to the rich, to his enemies, to his friends. He would give them anything, for he personally had been given much.
Legal Themes in Alma’s Speeches
Standing before the judgment bar of God (Alma 5)
Basis of God’s judgment (Alma 12)
Concept of restorative justice (Alma 41)
Operation of justice and mercy (Alma 42)
Judge Alma is the one who tells us most explicitly in Alma 12:14 the three evidentiary grounds on which we will be judged: by our words, our deeds, and our thoughts. He says, “For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; . . . and our thoughts will also condemn us, and in this awful state will shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence.”
Strikingly, it is no surprise that it is judge Alma, of all the prophets, who wrestles most of all, particularly in Alma 42, with the tension between justice and mercy. After all, as a judge he had been required both to apply the demands of the law and also to consider the petitions for mercy in a number of very hard cases. Getting justice and mercy together is the ever-present task of every good judge.
2. Alma knows his audiences and tailors his words to their needs and circumstances. It helps us give ear to Alma’s words when we see how sensitively he spoke to each of his particular audiences. Because we know that he spoke so personally to them, we can hear him speaking personally to us, as we too share many of the recurring concerns and persistent predicaments felt by those Nephite audiences.
Mosiah 27 To his family and friends
Alma 5 To church members in Zarahemla
Alma 7 To righteous members in Gideon
Alma 9 To wicked people in Ammonihah
Alma 12–13 To his accusers in Ammonihah
Alma 29 To himself in prayer to God
Alma 32–33 To the poor outcasts in Antionum
Alma 36–37 To his righteous son Helaman
Alma 38 To his second son Shiblon
Alma 39–42 To his wayward son Corianton
Next we have Alma 5. Here Alma is speaking to backsliding church members in the city of Zarahemla. Remember that there had been 3,500 converts the year before. It had been a great, successful year for the missionary effort following the defeat of Amlici. But Alma had a retention problem; perhaps some had joined for social or political reasons in the aftermath of the civil war. In this setting, Alma delivers a classic covenant renewal speech, encouraging people to renew or to deepen the level of conversion they had previously experienced. Here his style is authoritative, drawing heavily on phrases from King Benjamin’s renewal text given in the same city of Zarahemla forty-two years (or six sabbatical periods) earlier.
In Alma 9, we encounter a totally different mood. Alma boldly delivers a pure prophetic judgment speech to the wicked people of Nehor in the land of Ammonihah. Here Alma focuses on repentance and how God will deliver people only if they properly repent; otherwise they are ripe for destruction. His style is blunt and consequential.
In Alma 29, Alma’s primary audience is himself. Who can fail to sense his sincerity as he ponders the wish and prayer of his heart: “O that I were an angel” (v. 1). We will come back to this interior text.
Alma chapters 36–42 preserve Alma’s words to his three sons, Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton. How different the blessings and instructions are to each! There is nothing trite or rubber-stamped here. Alma was a good father; he knew each of his sons personally. He had taught and worked with them. Helaman, the responsible oldest son, suitably received the firstborn’s doubled blessing (twice the length of Shiblon’s) and is charged with the duty of keeping the records. Shiblon, a middle son, receives wise social counsel: “use boldness, but not overbearance” (38:12), “see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness” (38:12–13). Corianton, the wayward son, is told of sin, abomination, crime, resurrection, restoration, and judgment in words that would set his teeth on edge as the Hebrew father was told that he should speak at Passover to a son in need of censure and repentance.
3. Alma makes very skillful and creative use of language and literary forms. Alma is obviously a very skillful writer. He was gifted with words from the time of his youth. When Mosiah 27 describes Alma and the four sons of Mosiah who caused so many difficulties for Alma’s own father and the Church, it notes that Alma was adept at flattering the people with his words. He was a skillful orator. He knew how to use words. That was how he was able to cause so many problems. After his conversion, he employed that impressive talent in the work of the Lord. Let’s look more closely to better appreciate a few of the amazing compositional qualities of Alma’s words.
In addition, Alma was meticulous about his cumulative and collective words. Certain words seem to have been measured and counted. We spot this trait in Alma 31: 26–35, when Alma prayed before entering the Zoramite city of Antionum. In that prayer he invoked the sacred name “O Lord” exactly ten times. It seems more than coincidental that ten is the traditional ancient number of perfection, an especially suitable number of times for uttering the holy name of God. That Alma would invoke the divine name ten times seems hardly accidental.
Antithetical Parallelism in Mosiah 27:29–30
I was in the darkest abyss;
But now I behold the marvelous light of God.
My soul was racked with eternal torment;
But I am snatched and my soul is pained no more.
I rejected my Redeemer, and denied that which had been spoken . . . ;
But now that they may foresee that he will come and that he remembereth. . . .
Alma also made skillful use of complex structural chiasmus or inverted parallelism. This is the style of writing that presents a series of words in one order (A-B-C) and then turns around and presents them in the opposite order (C-B-A). Chiasmus is not completely unique to Hebrew literature, but its use is an indication of Hebrew style. A good example of chiasmus is found in Leviticus 24:13–23. Alma, as a close student of scripture, may have learned this writing technique from passages such as that one on the plates of brass.
Chiastic Centerpiece of Alma 36
Lost the use of his limbs (v. 10)
Feared to be with God (v. 15)
Was harrowed up by the memory of his sins (v. 17)
Remembered Jesus Christ, a Son of God (v. 17)
Cried, “Jesus, thou Son of God” (v. 18)
Was harrowed up by the memory of his sins no more (v. 19)
Longed to be with God (v. 22)
Received the use of his limbs (v. 23)
And more than that, Alma uses chiasmus not just as a literary device but to focus attention on the critical turning point of his life. Chiasmus is the best literary form with focusing power. From these pivotal words, we can see the real pivot point of Alma’s life. It wasn’t the coming of the angel, where we might put it. The turning point of Alma’s life was three days later. “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, who am in the gall of bitterness” (vv. 17–18). He even makes the structural contrast explicit: “Yea, my soul was filled with joy was as exceeding as was my pain” (v. 20), as if to say, “Get the point. I’m comparing the two. You can’t understand the one without the other.” Alma uses chiasmus as an effective focusing tool that embraces this entire chapter, which begins and ends with related words: “My son, give ear to my words” (v. 1) and “now this is according to his word” (v. 30), marking the boundaries of this textual space.
Alma was also creative with his words. Perhaps the most clever use of chiasmus is found in Alma 41:13–15. In speaking to Corianton, as we mentioned previously, Alma had to explain the meaning of the word restoration. The Nehorites taught that all people would be restored to a condition of happiness. Alma had to explain that the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back “good for that which is good, righteous for that which is righteous, just for that which just, merciful for that which is merciful.”
First a List of Pairs
Then a Pair of Lists
But again, the form of this passage is not just ornamental. Alma’s creative use of chiasmus in Alma 41 perfectly communicates the essence of restorative justice, namely that God’s justice will be balanced. As in Leviticus 24, the use of chiasmus in Alma 41 communicates the essence of ancient Israelite jurisprudence: bruise for bruise, tooth for tooth; or in other words, let the punishment match the crime. So the use of chiasmus in Alma 41 serves Alma’s needs beautifully and also gives us an exquisite example of this style of writing. Research has shown that some people knew about chiasmus in Joseph Smith’s day, although there is no indication that Joseph himself was aware of it; and even so, knowing a few of its rudiments is one thing; producing creative masterpieces of this quality is a very different matter.
1. Let us appreciate the intensity with which Alma says, “I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, . . . that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth” (Alma 29:2). Repentance is the key for us all, if we are to eliminate sorrow in our own lives or in the world around us. Alma 29 was written very shortly after one of the most sorrowful days in Alma’s life. Thousands of bodies were laid low in the earth (see Alma 28:11). The Nephites had fought a vicious battle in the defense of the rights of Ammonite converts to stay in the land of Zarahemla. This was a bittersweet time in Alma’s life. He felt the pain, the cost that had been paid by those soldiers and their families. Alma also knew the price that the Ammonites had paid to become converts to the Church. He also had witnessed up close the cost that Amulek had recently borne as the men in Ammonihah cast out the believing men and burned their books, along with their women and children. Among those women and children, would there not have been Amulek’s own wife and children? Alma knows that all this sorrow could have been averted by a willingness of some to repent. Helping someone to repent from day to day may be the most important function and operation of the priesthood. Alma looked up especially to Melchizedek as the greatest high priest, and why? Because when Melchizedek preached repentance to his people, they did repent, perhaps the most desirable priesthood miracle of them all.
3. Let us give ear as he goes on in verse 5, “Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless.” We might ask, Is this Alma the lawyer again, thinking of them as acquitted from guilt? He continues, “But he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.” Alma knows that opposition is in the very nature of this creation. As Alma grew older, things seem to have become even more black and white for him. This happens when we see things more in an eternal perspective: areas of gray become less significant. Ultimately, things either build up our desire in favor of the kingdom of God or take away from it.
5. Alma knows that we grow not only in knowledge of that which is just and true but also in a knowledge of that which is good. Notice and give ear to Alma’s particular words here. It is one thing to know that something is true, another thing to know that it is good. When the seed begins to grow, I think it is significant that the first thing that a person knows, in Alma 32:33, is that the seed is good. Indeed, Satan knows a lot of truth; he is very smart. But what Satan doesn’t know or won’t respond to is that which is good. Hitler knew a lot of truth, but what he didn’t know was how to put that knowledge of mathematics, communications, or economics to work for good purposes. I think Alma wanted us to know that the gospel is both true and also that it is good.
7. Do we give ear as Alma reminds us that we must remember what the Lord has done? When he sees others truly penitent, then he remembers “what the Lord has done for me, yea, even that he hath heard my prayer; yea, then do I remember his merciful arm which he extended towards me” (v. 10). Remembering is a spiritual process. Remembering is to the past as faith and hope are to the future. It is significant that we make only one promise as we partake of the sacrament, namely that we will remember him always.
9. Alma ends his testimony in chapter 29 by speaking of the fruits of joy and happiness that will come by planting and cultivating a particular word that will spring up in us unto eternal life. He is carried away with joy because he had been called “by a holy calling, to preach the word” (v. 13). For Alma, that word is the seed that we must plant: “And now, my brethren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts” (33:23). In Alma 33, Alma reveals what that most important seven-part “word” or proclamation is.
Believe in the Son of God,
That he will come to redeem his people,
And that he shall suffer and die
To atone for their sins;
And that he shall rise again from the dead,
Which shall bring to pass the resurrection,
That all men shall stand before him, to be judged
We give ear to this word when we plant, cultivate, and give room for this word of faith in our lives.
In sum, for the many reasons we have discussed, Alma bears a powerful testimony. We do well indeed to give heed to his words. I hope that these few suggestions will help you give closer ear to his words. He speaks directly, boldly, unequivocally, with unflinching language of sure knowledge. As he testifies in Alma 36:4–5 and 26, I would not that ye think “that I know of myself,” for “if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things,” but “many have been born of God, and have tasted as I have tasted,” and Athe knowledge which I have is of God.” Think of hearing Alma bear this testimony; what a direct and beautiful testimony he bore!
I hope and pray that in some beneficial way you will never think of the words of Alma quite the same way again, that you will see him as a towering figure in the center of the Book of Mormon out of which so much continues to emerge. His legacy throughout the Book of Mormon is indelible. He did as much as or more than any other to prepare and to hold the Nephite nation together, that there would be a righteous and knowledgeable group preserved to greet the resurrected Lord as he came to instruct them at the temple in Bountiful. I pray that Alma’s words may similarly prepare us to receive the coming of the Savior and to stand before him at the Judgment, which will surely occur one day.
 L. Tom Perry, “Alma the Son of Alma,” in Heroes from the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 98.
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “Alma, Son of Alma,” Ensign, March 1977, 79.
 Holland, “Alma, Son of Alma,” 84.
 S. Kent Brown, “Alma’s Soliloquy: Alma 29,” in Alma, the Testimony of the Word, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1992), 149.
 See charts 106–7 at http://byustudies.byu.edu/januarybomcharts/browse.html.
 Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” BYU Studies 43, no. 2 (2004): 103–30.