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Book of Mormon Theology

What Did Alma in the Book of Mormon Contribute to Theology?

I love it when people tell me that reading my book made Alma real to them.

The Book of Alma is one of the richest books in the Book of Mormon in both theology and narrative. Alma2 is a powerful preacher who has a remarkable conversion story and dramatic (albeit tragic) missionary journeys. Similarly, the sons of Mosiah, also have dramatic stories of missionary work. In this interview, Kylie Nielson Turley discusses the theology in Alma 1–29 found in the stories of figures like Alma, Amulek, and Abish.


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What led you to write Alma 1–29: a brief theological introduction?

Here is the short and sweet answer: the Maxwell Institute asked me to do it, and I said yes.

The not-so-short answer is difficult because I do not know where to begin. One possible starting point is June of 2012. That month found me sitting by my dad’s bedside, watching as he withered away from cancer. He liked to hear the Book of Mormon, so I read aloud to him from the Book of Alma.

It was reading aloud that slowed me down enough to notice that Alma’s speech at Ammonihah has many allusions to King Benjamin’s famous speech in Mosiah 2–4. For some reason Alma’s story jumped out at me, and I began reading it again and again.

I have to admit that I became a little obsessed with Alma and his life. I thought that I knew him. I began telling people that I had a “scripture-crush” on Alma, which was my silly way of saying that he was becoming real to me. I felt (and feel) as if I know him.

Uncharacteristically, I pushed my way into a Book of Mormon class that Grant Hardy taught during the summer of 2015. I gained some better study tools from the course, and it opened my eyes to a new method of reading the scriptures.

Then, with even more uncharacteristic pushiness, I invited myself to a Book of Mormon study group that I had heard about. Those who attended read the Book of Mormon with attention to small details and the thematic whole. They read with attention that I typically reserved for poetry.

I found myself wondering why I had never applied literary skills of close reading (at least not with depth and consistency) to the Book of Mormon. I began to do so—paying special attention to Alma. My kids would come home from school, see tears streaming down my face while I typed on my computer and say, “Alma? Again, mom?”

“Listen!” I would sniffle, swiping away my tears and picking up one of the 3 or 4 copies of the Book of Mormon that I studied with. “Listen to what happened to him.”

It is much, much more likely that he was converted as an adult.

After studying Alma for a few years (and with encouragement from some smart friends), I wrote what eventually became “Alma’s Hell: Repentance, Consequence, and the Lake of Fire and Brimstone.”

A friend asked when I was going to write a book.

“Never,” I said without hesitation. And I meant it.

The Maxwell Institute’s invitation to participate in the Brief Theological Introduction Series arrived only a few weeks later. I was flattered, but intimidated. They said I could have the first half of Alma. More flattered. Less intimidated. Still hesitant. My co-authors and editors are people whose work I put on my “books that have changed my life” shelf. I prayed and told God that I didn’t think I was smart enough to write this book.

God said, “Yes, but I am.”

And so I said yes.

It has been a privilege, an honor, and a blessing to work with my co-authors and the Maxwell Institute.

Watch Kylie Nielson Turley talk about the theological contributions of Alma in the Book of Mormon.

What is the “unbeliever movement” in Mosiah?

The Book of Mormon first discusses unbelief in 1 Nephi 4:13, when the Spirit tells Nephi, “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” And with that, one of the major themes of this book is introduced—a theme that runs through every book in the Book of Mormon (with the exception of the shortest books: Enos, Jarom, and Omni).

In the middle of the Book of Mormon, unbelief looks different. Despite the 50 references to unbelief, the unbelievers are mentioned only 5 times:

  • Mosiah 27:1, 8, 32
  • Alma 4:11
  • 3 Nephi 1:9

Mosiah 27:8 tells readers obliquely why this difference occurs. When the text says that the sons of Mosiah and also Alma “were numbered among the unbelievers,” readers know that the unbelievers have united to some extent.

Mosiah 26:1 explains that this particular group of unbelievers is comprised of the “little children at the time [that King Benjamin] spake unto his people, and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers.”

Mosiah 26 then goes on to describe what the unbelievers believed, explaining, for example, that this group “did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead,” nor do they believe “concerning the coming of Christ” (Mosiah 27:2). Carefully reading Mosiah 26–27 draws out other beliefs of this anti-Christ group.

This is important to notice because unlike people throughout the Book of Mormon who dwindle in unbelief—seemingly for personal reasons or for shared reasons but from a personal standpoint—these unbelievers are united by common beliefs, shared practices, and group identification.

They are not simply dwindling into apostasy as individuals. They are organized; they have standard beliefs; and they can vocalize their message. They are persuasive, and they are trying to recruit others; they work to persuade members to leave the Church of God and join them. Notably, the unbelievers are “not half so numerous as the people of God; but because of the dissensions among the brethren, they became more numerous” (Mosiah 26:6).


How does pre-conversion Alma mirror the anti-Christs that he later contends with?

We first “hear” Alma’s voice when he arises from his three-day trance and declares that he has “repented [of] his sins, and ha[s] been redeemed of the Lord” (Mosiah 27:24). When he declares that he has repented, Alma is implicitly stating that he no longer agrees with the Unbelievers, who do not see the need to “call upon the Lord their God” for forgiveness or mercy (Mosiah 26:4).

The anti-Christ, Nehor, preaches that people “need not fear nor tremble” because the Lord would “redeem all men; and, in the end, that all men should have eternal life” (Alma 1:4). In other words, there is no need to repent because God will save everyone.

Apparently the apostate citizens of Ammonihah believe likewise because Alma pleads with them to “humble [themselves] before the Lord, and call on his holy name,” a statement that suggests that they have not been doing this (Alma 13:28).

When he awakens, Alma also admits that in his pre-conversion state, he had “rejected [his] Redeemer, and denied that which had been spoken by our fathers” (Mosiah 27:30). Korihor is an Anti-Christ: he “preach[ed] unto the people against the prophecies concerning the coming of Christ” (Alma 30:6).

The Zoramites thank God on the Rameumpton that they were “elected” to “not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ” (Alma 31:17). This statement by the Zoramites hints that references to “foolish traditions” may at times refer to the “tradition” of Christ coming. That notion is also evident in Helaman 16 when the greater part of the Nephites say that “it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come” (Helaman 16:18), and explain that they “know that this is a wicked tradition, which has been handed down unto us by our fathers” (Helaman 16:20).

In Alma 37:9, Alma tells Helaman that the records and the words contained thereon “brought [the Lamanite converts] unto repentance; that is, these records brought them to the knowledge of the Lord their God, and to rejoice in Jesus Christ, their Redeemer,” which, of course, Alma only deals with in a secondhand manner. But he does face the Nephites in the ninth year of the reign of the judges (Alma 4:13) and the Church members in Zarahemla (Alma 5:3-13, 47), and possibly the people of Ammonihah (Alma 9:8).

There are many other beliefs that the Unbelievers held to be true, but the belief that there is no Christ and that there is no need for repentance are two key beliefs that Alma, an Unbeliever, held prior to his conversion.

NOTE: this is just a sampling. There are more beliefs and many more interactions!


How old was Alma at the time of his conversion?

The short, most accurate answer is that we do not know. Here is the longer, more speculative—and more interesting—answer.

There are many reasons to think that Alma was much older than the teenager than we often imagine him to be. He could easily be in his 30s, almost as easily in his 40s, and conceivably in his 50s when he is converted.

Here are a few of the reasons why.

Diction

Alma “the Younger” is actually never called “the younger” in scripture. That title is only used in modern study helps. How much does the assumption of youth and immaturity take its course from that name?


Estimated ages

Mosiah dies at age 63 in the 1 RJ (first year of the reign of the judges), and he spent 30 years as king. Those who were “little children” at the time of his coronation, including his own sons apparently are the foundation of the Unbeliever movement (Mosiah 26:1).

How old is a “little child” who is unable to comprehend the message and intent of King Benjamin’s speech? If we simply guess, we might suggest a range, perhaps 3 – 10 years old.

If put in an equation, it would look like this:

  • The age of the Unbelievers = 3–10 years old (age at King Benjamin’s sermon) + 30 years (Mosiah’s reign) – 1–9 years (the number of years between Alma’s conversion and 1 RJ, according to the estimates of scholars).

With these very rough estimates, the little children would be anywhere from 24-39 years old when Alma was converted.

The final twist is telling him that his hallmark skill is the cause.

If we use the same 1-9 years before 1 RJ to help us estimate Alma’s age, then the date we should notice is that Alma’s father (Alma) dies. In 1 RJ Alma’s father, Alma, dies at 82 years old (Mosiah 29:45).

Here is the question to consider: how old is the son when an angel appears, if his father is between 72-81 years old?

Beyond the dates themselves, readers need to notice that this family has more dates and times related to their personal lives than any other family in the Book of Mormon. Someone thinks it is a big deal for readers to understand the lives and deaths of people in the Alma family.
Besides the dates and the decision to include such numbers, there are diction issues that also suggest age.

If readers simply cannot believe that Alma was converted as a fully grown adult, then they might want to consider how much evidence they have to the contrary. There is some, but is it enough to overcome the evidence that he was a fully grown adult man when he was trying to destroy the church of God?

In my estimation, there is simply not enough evidence to suggest youth and immaturity. It is much, much more likely that Alma was converted as an adult.


Why do you spend so much time on the necessity of grieving?

In my personal experience and in my (limited) study of the Latter-day Saint conception of death, it seems that members of the Church are prone to think the faith means one will not mourn loss of loved ones.

I personally have heard sentiments such as the ones Courtney S. Campbell reports were spoken at the “funeral service for a distinguished member” of the Church:

Death is nothing at all. It does not count . . . . Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as if ever was . . . What is death but a negligible accident?

Funeral service comments recorded by Courtney S. Campbell

Campbell cites Nelson as saying that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that “death . . . is a social construct used to mark a transitional process in human development or a ‘progression.’” For Nelson, the theology of this community “renders death not as an enemy to be feared but as a ‘friend to be understood’.” Campbell argues that the “eschatological framing of death . . . demystify and rationalize death.”

In my personal experience, these stated beliefs about eternal life do not match the experience. Faith does not prevent pain at the loss of loved ones. Stating that faith means death is not painful causes someone who is in pain and mourning to question if they have faith, which is spectacularly unhelpful at a time of grieving and loss.

I did not plan to write these topics when I began, but these issues began weighing on me as I read through Alma 1-29 over and over again.


How does the trauma of Alma being forced to watch women and children burn in Ammonihah affect him?

I believe that the Ammonihah story and its aftermath hide a real person in very real pain. Ammonihah is a difficult narrative. The narrative rips the ongoing storyline into a before and an after—at least it does for Alma.

The events at Ammonihah strip words from Alma. He is stunned into literal silence for days and stunned into textual silence for years. Except for his conversion, everything that readers know about Alma occurs between 1 RJ and 18 RJ (113 pages). That Alma is textually silent for five years (37 pages) is not a negligible matter.

Distracted by the missionary adventures of Ammon and his brethren among the Lamanites, readers might not realize how much times passes between Ammonihah and the next time they hear a public speech or sermon from Alma. Alma does not resurface as a known speaker until Alma 30:32 when he argues with Korihor, and he does not resurface as a known public speaker until he cries out to God in distress about the Zoramites in Alma 31:25–35. While the passage of five years in the Book of Omni would mean next to nothing, five years of Alma’s time is not the same.

Direct speech is not the only silence: authorship and the marking of time also falter in this section. Before Ammonihah, the Book of Alma has regular indicators of authorship, such as the little note in Alma 9:1 that clarifies or the superscriptions found above chapter sections.

But from Ammonihah until Alma 31, it is unclear who is writing and who is narrating, and it is unclear when they are writing and narrating. Before Ammonihah, dates are mentioned with regularity. In fact, Ammonihah has more day-month-year time markers than any other event in the Book of Mormon. But after Ammonihah, Alma’s story wraps up in a terse half of a chapter that vaguely summarizes three years and then transitions into the story of the sons of Mosiah and their Lamanite mission. Ammonihah ruptures Alma’s text and seemingly Alma, himself.

Alma is stunned into silence by what he witnesses at Ammonihah. While silence can be a viable response to being questioned in this manner (and, not coincidentally, it is a response chosen by Jesus), it is also a well-documented response to traumatic experiences.

Trauma, the Greek word for wound, occurs when events overwhelm the mind. What a person’s eyes saw or ears heard or body felt is recorded in the brain, but the mind is unable to process or integrate the event into a person’s understanding of reality. The memories are in someone’s brain, but they are scattered and recorded in fragments. The event becomes unspeakable, each memory disconnected from other memories of the event, and likely remembered as feeling or emotion or image rather than in words and language.

That Alma might be stunned into silence is understandable. The judge and the people of Ammonihah guarantee that Alma sees friends die. They guarantee that Amulek, the man an angel promised would be blessed by Alma’s presence, is beside Alma.

Bound with strong cords and brought to the fire while the flames are blazing, Alma and Amulek are forced to witness women and children—most likely including Amulek’s family—be burned to death. Still not content, the chief judge ensures that Alma understands the brutal irony at the heart of this horror: Alma’s unfortunate gospel metaphor about a lake of fire and brimstone prompts the literal lake of fire and brimstone that burns before his eyes.

The violence revolves around words, ideas, and metaphor in ways that are vicious, deliberate, and personal. Alma preached of fiery punishment (Alma 12:17), was forced to watch his words become horrifyingly real (Alma 14:8–11), and then is told that he is to blame for the deaths he witnesses—or, at least, that his words sparked the idea (Alma 14:14).

Ammonihah’s citizens aim to torture Alma in horrifyingly inhumane ways, and the final twist is telling him that his rhetoric—his hallmark skill—is the cause. Events much less dramatic, much less pointed, and much less personal than Ammonihah can haunt someone, even traumatize.


Why are psalms of lament, such as Alma 29 important?

I think that psalms of lament are adaptable and helpful. As far as prayer is concerned, we tend to teach that we address God reverently, then tell him what we are grateful for, followed up with asking him for what we stand in need of, and finishing in the name of Jesus Christ.

If we think about that for awhile, we might notice that prayer oriented toward gratitude and help can become selfish quite easily. Obviously when we pray for what we need or want, a prayer is about us. But even when we express gratitude, we may say something such as, “Father, I am thankful for my many blessings.” In that little example it is easy to see how at times even our gratitude is about us (I am thankful for MY blessings).

Rather than asking for blessings or expressing personal gratitude for what we have been blessed with, a psalm is largely about praise and lament.

Praise can simply be what it is: an expression of how good God is or how powerful or how loving He is. Lamenting is obviously about pain and hurt, and that can be personal, perhaps the most intensely personal expression. But in this situation, a communal lament would be most appropriate.

There are typically five parts of lament, but those are rather flexible and different scholars find more sections while others find fewer. They are not rigid and orderly, but, rather are flexible. Parts can tumble into each other, be out of order, repeated, or skipped altogether.

However, laments by definition move through phases such that what begins in lament ends in praise. A person can bring honest pain or anger or fear (or all three of those and/or many more emotions); lament is a prayer in process.

Naturally, writing or singing a lament does not guarantee that a person’s heart and soul are completely changed. But at some point the lament turns. What begins in sorrow ends in praise.

There is only one possible way that they could have found that information.

What I find most intriguing is that this process of lament is not a lecture by a leader about how to feel or how to heal. Lamenting is the process. Rather than telling some that they should pray or telling someone that they need to move through their pain, or pointing out that it is not healthy to remain trapped in a place of self-condemning sorrow for too long, lament is doing that.

Lament is not preaching, it is doing. It is not telling someone what they should do or even how they should do it. Instead, lamenting is the process. It is a pathway to healing.


What are some hints that Abish wrote her own story?

Great Question!

The answer is this question is found by considering the plot, the diction, and support for this possibility from other parts of the Book of Mormon.

The plot is straightforward:

  • Lamoni offers a stunning prayer for mercy and then he “fell unto the earth, as if he were dead” (Alma 18:42).
  • After arising (on the third day), he tells his wife that he s seen the Redeemer, at which point his “heart was swollen within him, and he sunk again with joy” (Alma 19:11).
  • This short message causes the queen to “s[ink] down, being overpowered by the Spirit” (Alma 19:11).
  • Ammon then is overpowered in his joy at their repentance, and then the servants also “call on the name of the Lord, in their might” and fall to the ground (Alma 19:16).

In other words, except for Abish, every person involved in this immediate situation is found on the ground, motionless, “as though they were dead” (Alma 19:18). If readers know what happened next (and they do), there is only one possible way that they could have found that information: Abish.

Notably, this is at the precise moment in the story that diction changes. Suddenly readers are told Abish’s interior thoughts: she “knew that” the events occurring around her were “the power of God,” and she believed that “beholding this scene . . . would cause them to believe in the power of God” (Alma 19:17).

This is information that only Abish knows. Anyone in the vicinity could have seen that she “ran forth from house to house” (Alma 19:17), but only Abish herself can explain why she did what she did.

The wording also suggests that these are Abish’s words. Of 126 words in the 1.5 verses that tell Abish’s interior thinking, 76 are what I would label as “distinct” in diction.

For example, the phrase “never having made it known” is unique in scripture. No one else says it. The idea that “making it known unto the people” will help them believe is something that only occurs in the Book of Mormon and that only occurs after Abish uses it first, and the use of a few words, such as “mistress,” occur this singular time and never again. That so many words and phrases are unique or almost unique suggests that they may be the words of Abish. Frankly, I have never studied a verse in the Book of Mormon that comes close to this conspicuously individualized.

The originality and the interiority of these words suggests that they may be Abish’s words. Could a “Lamanitish” woman say or even write her own words? Helaman 3 allows for that possibility when it explains that “there are many books and many records of every kind, and they have been kept chiefly by the Nephites”(Hel 3:15)—a statement that implies they have not been kept solely by the Nephites.

Notably, Helaman 3:13 explains (seemingly in reference to the people of Ammon) “there are many records kept of the proceedings of this people, by many of this people, which are particular and very large, concerning them.”

While this discussion about records does not prove these are Abish’s words, it does open the door to that possibility.


In what ways is Abish a Christ figure?

This narrative depicts a fall in a rather original way: people are literally falling to the earth and appearing to be dead repeatedly. Oddly, when they arise, they do not speak nor act as if they have all suffered a physical fall, but, rather, a spiritual fall. The king arises and joyfully tells his wife that he has “seen [his] Redeemer” and that the Redeemer “shall come forth, and be born of a woman and he shall redeem all mankind” (Alma 19:13). While some may view Ammon as a Christ figure, it seems to me that Ammon is more of an Adam figure. Ammon’s actions and words bring the “fall” of everyone in King Lamoni’s household.

Abish is different. Regardless of whether these people need redemption from a literal fall or a metaphorical fall, Abish brings life. In a surprisingly descriptive sequence, Abish “took the queen by the hand that perhaps she might raise her from the ground” (Alma 19:29), and “as soon as she touched” the queen, the queen “arose and stood upon her feet.” Clearly Abish brings physical healing.

Image of Abish waking the Lamanite queen (created using Midjourney)

Similar to her husband, when the queen arises physically, she also arises spiritually. She exclaims, “O blessed Jesus who has saved me from an awful hell!” (Alma 19:29).

Abish’s life-bringing touch is healing, but it is also powerful. Indeed, the queen is so thoroughly healed that she gains the ability to heal others. Blessed by Abish’s life-giving touch, the queen is able to take “the king, Lamoni, by the hand, and behold he arose and stood upon his feet” (Alma 19:30).

Like the Savior, Abish has not only the ability to bring life, but to bring it so abundantly that those she has healed become healers themselves.


What do you hope people take away from reading Alma 1–29: A Brief Theological Introduction?

I love it when people tell me that reading my book made Alma real to them.


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About the interview participant

Kylie Nielson Turley has taught writing, rhetoric, and literature classes since 1997 at Brigham Young University, where she emphasizes a literary approach to the Book of Mormon in her Literature of the Latter-day Saint People course. She has published articles on Alma, Latter-day Saint “home literature” fiction and poetry, and Utah and Latter-day Saint women’s history.


Further Reading

Alma in the Book of Mormon Theology Resources

  • Alma 1-29: a brief theological introduction (Maxwell Institute)
  • Alma’s Hell: Repentance, Consequence, and the Lake of Fire and Brimstone (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies)
  • “A Remarkable Vision of Her Father”: The Many Uses of of in The Book of Alma (Dialogue)
  • Alma’s Conversion: Reminiscences in His Sermons (BYU RSC)

Brief Theological Introductions interviews

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

2 replies on “What Did Alma in the Book of Mormon Contribute to Theology?”

This is an excellent article. I definitely feel like I know Alma more personally as I use the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introduction to supplement my study of the Book of Mormon. I am immensely impressed with the knowledge and insight that Turley brings to this portion of the Book of Mormon. Close and careful reading can bring about such amazing understanding!

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