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1 And now, it came to pass that Alma, who had fled from the servants of king Noah, repented of his sins and iniquities, and went about privately among the people, and began to teach the words of Abinadi—
2 Yea, concerning that which was to come, and also concerning the resurrection of the dead, and the redemption of the people, which was to be brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven.
3 And as many as would hear his word he did teach. And he taught them privately, that it might not come to the knowledge of the king. And many did believe his words.
There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition. Our chapter 17 began the original chapter, and that chapter began with an introduction to Alma1 as the only convert from Abinadi’s direct teaching. The rest of our chapter 17 finished the story of Abinadi. Now, having ended Abinadi’s story, Mormon returns to the beginning of the original chapter to pick up on Alma1’s story.
Abinadi’s message was the essentiality of the coming Messiah to provide salvation. Alma1 absorbed that lesson, and when he began to teach, he taught “concerning that which was to come.” That phrase occurs multiple times in the Book of Mormon and refers to the coming Messiah. Thus, Alma1 teaches what Abinadi taught.
Alma1 begins to have success in teaching. Verse three notes that “many did believe his words.” That preaching will expand and will result in finding a new location where believers might gather to be taught. That is the next part of the story.
Alma1 Forms a Church at the Waters of Mormon
4 And it came to pass that as many as did believe him did go forth to a place which was called Mormon, having received its name from the king, being in the borders of the land having been infested, by times or at seasons, by wild beasts.
5 Now, there was in Mormon a fountain of pure water, and Alma resorted thither, there being near the water a thicket of small trees, where he did hide himself in the daytime from the searches of the king.
6 And it came to pass that as many as believed him went thither to hear his words.
7 And it came to pass after many days there were a goodly number gathered together at the place of Mormon, to hear the words of Alma. Yea, all were gathered together that believed on his word, to hear him. And he did teach them, and did preach unto them repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord.
Alma1 had been condemned to death. He was clearly in need of remaining out of Noah’s attention. Therefore, he and those who believe what he taught leave the city and gather in a new location. This location is “in the borders of the land.” That suggests that it is away from the city and perhaps in a region that is not often visited. The statement that there were, at times, wild beasts, suggests that it might have been avoided as a location of dangerous animals. In a Mesoamerican setting, this would likely have been the hunting range for one or more jaguars. The fact that there was water nearby made it both attractive to a new group of people, and it also likely influenced the presence of the jaguars who would prey on other animals as they came to drink in the waters.
The place which was called Mormon may have been named for a previous king, but it seems likely that the Mormon who is writing mentions the name because he is named for that location. More than for the person, Mormon would have been named for the events that began there.
While the waters of Mormon were important to the animals of the region, and important to any people who might assemble there, they became important for a much more sacred reason.
8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
Nephi has seen the baptism of Christ in his vision. In 1 Nephi 31:4–12, Nephi explains baptism for the remission of sins. However, after that vision we do not explicitly hear about baptism until these verses. Certainly, the teaching of immersion as a means of cleansing sin continued in Nephite religion. Alma1 does not introduce baptism itself, but what he does is introduce baptism as an entry covenant into a new relationship with Yahweh. He was teaching those who had learned some form of the law of Moses. They understood clean and unclean. They understood sin.
What this people did not understand fully was that they could have a community separate from their city in which they might have a different understanding of God. The ability to have a divided religious community was beginning near the waters of Mormon, and baptism was expanded to become the covenant of entry as well as an act of cleansing.
The new community is defined by the way each was to care for the other. They were to bear one another’s burdens. They were to sympathize and comfort each other. Above all, of the social rules for this new division in society, they were also to be a witness for their new relationship to Yahweh. The people who remained, believing as did Noah and his court priests, had their own understanding of religion, but the new covenant of this new people was that they would stand firm in their new understanding of Yahweh as the very God who would come down to put into effect the resurrection and provide the means of repentance.
11 And now when the people had heard these words, they clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts.
12 And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.
13 And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.
14 And after Alma had said these words, both Alma and Helam were buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit.
The people were willing and excited to accept this new covenant, and baptism became the symbol of that covenant. To begin, Alma1 selects Helam and takes him down into the water. After invoking authority from God, Alma1 and Helam are both immersed.
At this point in Nephite history, the use of immersion in baptism is clear, but it is an immersion borrowing significance from the previous Mikveh rite of cleansing, which was by immersion. Later Christianity used the immersion as a symbol of death and resurrection, but that symbolism was only possible after Christ’s death and resurrection. That imagery was unavailable at this time, and the Book of Mormon will not use that symbolic association with baptism.
When Alma1 baptized with authority, with what authority did he baptize? There will later be a discussion of authority, but the important point here is that Israel had two means of assigning religious authority to perform religious acts. One was lineal, and we know it as the Levitical Priesthood. That was not the only way, however. A king had the divine right and the ability to provide authority. Alma1 had such authority from Noah. Although we know Noah as a bad king, that does not mean that actions performed with good faith through his granted authority are not divinely recognized. Even today, we understand that the act can be valid in God’s eyes even if, or when, the one performing the act is not fully worthy. We are blessed for our action and beliefs, not those of another.
Nevertheless, the most important indication will come in verse 18. Alma1 acted, “having authority from God.” If God authorizes Alma1, we need not worry about the intermediaries.
15 And again, Alma took another, and went forth a second time into the water, and baptized him according to the first, only he did not bury himself again in the water.
16 And after this manner he did baptize every one that went forth to the place of Mormon; and they were in number about two hundred and four souls; yea, and they were baptized in the waters of Mormon, and were filled with the grace of God.
17 And they were called the church of God, or the church of Christ, from that time forward. And it came to pass that whosoever was baptized by the power and authority of God was added to his church.
Alma1 enacted the covenant of baptism with all who had come to the place of Mormon. Had these people been previously baptized? We cannot know. What we can know is that Alma1 instituted a second function of baptism as an entry covenant. Even had they been baptized previously, the new baptism enacted their entry into the new covenant. It is the same in our modern experience. Regardless whether a convert was previously baptized, they are baptized again, not simply for the cleansing, but for the entrance into the new covenant of the restored gospel.
Verse 17 introduces the idea that this new, separated, people were “called the church of God, or the church of Christ.” While modern readers might see a difference in the terms “God” and “Christ”, Alma1 did not. He taught that which Abinadi had taught, which was that Yahweh himself (who is God), would come down to earth to be the Messiah. Thus, the terms were intended to be equivalent, two ways to say the very same thing.
The idea of “church” is also a new innovation. In both the Hebrew and the Greek, the word behind the translated “church” means an assembly or congregation. For the Hebrews, it meant the faithful, and in the Greek it defined the group who gathered together and believed in the gospel of Christ. Alma1’s use of the term is more similar to the Greek, and perhaps similar again in that it was the beginning concept that would lead to the more specific definition of a church as a separate body of believers inside of the larger community. That was certainly what they had done in the land of Mormon, and it will happen after Alma1 arrives in Zarahemla. It will likely happen through his influence since it was a change from the way religion had been administered up to that point.
18 And 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.
19 And he commanded them that they should teach nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets.
20 Yea, even he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people.
When Alma1 creates a church, he ordains priests. Alma1’s priestly authority may have come through the king, but his authority to then create priests did not come through the king, but directly from God. Alma1 is creating a separate religious body with its own teachers, further defining “church” as a separate entity within a community. At this point, it is probable that many are still returning to their homes at night. Indeed, following those people will later be the means whereby Alma1’s people are discovered by Noah’s spies.
When Alma1 has the people preach, he has them “teach nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets.” This sentence should be read that he told them to preach the words of the scripture as he taught them to understand it, that is, in the same way Abinadi had explained them. The priests of Noah claimed to teach the scriptures, but they denied the coming Messiah. Alma1 has them preach under the understanding that the scriptures looked forward to that Messiah.
When he says that they should “preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord,” he is not saying that this in the only topic, but rather that repentance and faith in the Lord were the supreme topics. The mission of the Messiah was to provide the ability to repent, thus, teaching repentance was part and parcel of teaching about the coming Messiah. Teaching of that which was to come was the whole point of the establishment of this new religious covenant.
21 And he commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.
22 And thus he commanded them to preach. And thus they became the children of God.
23 And he commanded them that they should observe the sabbath day, and keep it holy, and also every day they should give thanks to the Lord their God.
24 And he also commanded them that the priests whom he had ordained should labor with their own hands for their support.
As Alma1 begins his new congregation, his new church, he establishes the social rules that govern it. Part of the rules of community were discussed as preparation for the entrance rite of baptism, that they care for one another and, therefore, become a community.
Now, Alma1 begins a listing of how they were to organize and how they should practice this new religious covenant. First, he repeats the essentials that prepared them for baptism. They had declared that they were willing to bear one another’s burdens, and now that was part of their responsibility. Here it is phrased that they should have no contention with one another. The idea is that they are now a family and are to treat one another as family. That is finalized when Alma1 says that “thus they became the children of God.” They are part of a new family.
Next, there is a continuation of the sabbath day. This is still a community that will live under the law of Moses, and therefore they will continue the sabbath practice.
Verse 24 repeats a theme we saw in Benjamin’s speech. The ideal is egalitarianism. While the priests have responsibilities to the community, they are also to labor with their own hands for their support. This would ensure that they did not see themselves as better than others, since all had to work.
25 And there was one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together.
26 And the priests were not to depend upon the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God.
Verses 25 and 26 essentially repeat verses 23 and 24.
Verse 23 said they should continue to observe the Sabbath. Verse 25 has them set aside a day when they should worship. Particularly in an agrarian society, there was much labor in the growing season, and it would be unusual to take two different days off for worship. Thus, verses 23 and 25 are different ways of saying the same thing.
Similarly, verses 24 and 26 both indicate that the priests are to work for their own support. Why repeat these things? The repetition serves to emphasize their importance. As a new community, there are two principles that will become part of the bedrock actions of the community: They will observe the sabbath to worship God, and their priests will not depend upon the people for their support, but they will work with their own hands.
27 And again Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly he should impart more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given.
28 And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul.
29 And this he said unto them, having been commanded of God; and they did walk uprightly before God, imparting to one another both temporally and spiritually according to their needs and their wants.
30 And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever.
Not only is egalitarianism a principle applied to the priests, but the people themselves are not to esteem themselves above another. This is an old Nephite teaching that we saw in Jacob’s sermons. The admonitions here to impart of one’s substance echo similar sentiments in King Benjamin’s speech. These were not new principles, but reiterations of longstanding beliefs.
It is important to note that while we might focus on the sharing of material substance with the needy, Alma1 considered spiritual needs to be equally important. Certainly, if one is physically hungry, we have a responsibility to assuage that hunger. Similarly, however, if one is spiritually hungry, we have an equal responsibility to feed that hunger. Perhaps for the spiritual needs, it is important that it is not only the needs, but we are to fulfill the wants. One may become sated physically, but spiritual hunger often leads to a greater hunger for greater understanding. That also we are to fulfil, as we are able.
The King Discovers Alma1’s People
31 And these things were done in the borders of the land, that they might not come to the knowledge of the king.
32 But behold, it came to pass that the king, having discovered a movement among the people, sent his servants to watch them. Therefore on the day that they were assembling themselves together to hear the word of the Lord they were discovered unto the king.
33 And now the king said that Alma was stirring up the people to rebellion against him; therefore he sent his army to destroy them.
34 And it came to pass that Alma and the people of the Lord were apprised of the coming of the king’s army; therefore they took their tents and their families and departed into the wilderness.
35 And they were in number about four hundred and fifty souls.
This section of the story ends, but the chapter will not. This part of the story concerned the creation of the church near the waters of Mormon. The next part of the story is their flight to a new land. That story begins when the king discovers that some larger number of people are often leaving and returning. Of course, it wasn’t the king himself, but the use of his title to indicate officials of the king.
Spies are sent to find out what is happening, and that is when they discover that Alma1 has established a division. It is not surprising that they equated that division with a possible rebellion. Therefore, the king sends an armed force to destroy them. Alma1’s people are warned, and they flee to safety.
There is no chapter break in the 1830 edition, but there is a logical break in that when Alma1’s people flee the story returns its focus to Noah and the actions on the home front. We will see Alma1’s people again, but at this point Mormon has told enough of their story and returns to important events in the city.
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