Cover image: “Alma the Younger Preaching”, by Gary L. Kapp
As the sons of Mosiah left on their missions, their absence caused a succession crisis for King Mosiah, their father. His solution was to end the monarchy altogether, and transform the government into a system of judges. This change was completely unprecedented in Nephite history, and makes us wonder where Mosiah got the idea, and why he thought it would be for the best. Apparently, he believed that if he gave the kingdom to anyone but one of his sons, it would cause contention among the people to the point of destruction. He and his people were well aware of the dangers of immoral kings. Although the memory of wicked King Noah was still fresh on their minds, Mosiah made clear allusions to kings from the Jaredite texts he had just translated. From those texts, he learned of the threats to peace and righteousness that could easily come from even one corrupt ruler. Mosiah was willing to give up his family’s power and prestige for the safety of his people. (See Book of Mormon Central Know Why for Mosiah 29:7)
Mosiah 29 begins with King Mosiah’s proposal to replace kings with elected judges. This drastic change was prompted by Mosiah’s inability to persuade any of his sons to accept the kingship. Aaron, perhaps the eldest son, was selected as Mosiah’s successor by the “voice of the people” (Mosiah 29:1), but he was apparently unwilling to return from his mission to the Lamanites to accept the throne (Mosiah 29:3). All of his brothers were equally adamant in not accepting the succession. Mosiah considered the possibility of choosing another person not of royal descent, but concluded that such a decision could easily result in “wars and contentions” among the people, along with much bloodshed and “perverting the way of the Lord” (Mosiah 29:7).
Therefore, Mosiah sent out a royal decree, proposing an entirely new form of government. He discussed additional reasons for this massive change, principally the example of Noah as the archetypal wicked king. It was not that the judgeship was inherently superior to kingship. In fact, he held that if one could always ensure that future kings would be like King Benjamin, “then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you” (Mosiah 29:13). Alma also agreed with this idea (see Mosiah 23:8). However, because the succession in any kingship always created the risk of instability, it was preferable to have a more formal system of selecting new leaders based on the will of the majority.
Contrary to what we might assume, this proposal does not seem to have been laid before the people for their approval. Rather, the king commanded “that ye have no king” (Mosiah 29:30), and we are told that the people were “convinced of the truth of his words” (Mosiah 29:37), and began implementing the new system immediately. The Nephites who lived under wicked King Noah, had seen how an unrighteous king had caused “iniquity” and “great destruction” among his people (Mosiah 29:17). They were “exceedingly anxious” to be free from such influence. “They were exceedingly rejoiced because of the liberty which had been granted unto them” (Mosiah 29:39).
However, this was much more than wise political reform – it also held spiritual significance. This change would allow them to be responsible for their own righteousness and “answer for [their] own sins. The people clearly understood what Mosiah was telling them, and they responded accordingly. “And now it came to pass, after king Mosiah had sent these things forth among the people they were convinced of the truth of his words. Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins” (Mosiah 29:37–38).
In order to understand this response, we need to consider their political background. Mosiah and the people had lived with the idea of sacred or “sacral kingship.” (I will discuss this later in the article.) Because the king was both the representative of God to the people, and of the people before God, he was typically held responsible for the acts of the people – both the good and bad. In contrast, under Mosiah’s judgeship, because there would be no royal intercessor, each person would be held responsible by God for his own sins. Thus, whatever evil was committed by the people would be “answered upon their own heads” (Mosiah 29:30) rather than upon the head of the king (Mosiah 29:31).
These must have been the thoughts of Mosiah – good kings are best, but in light of the tendency of kings to turn wicked (especially from one generation to the next), he needs to consider another option. He endorses a system of liberty and agency which permits mankind to be held responsible for their actions – even when it sometimes leads to utter disaster. As the Lord declared in 1833: “[I have suffered the U.S. Constitution to be established] that every man may act . . . according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood” (D&C 101:78–80; see also D&C 134:1).
Freedom necessarily comes with risks. But it is only when we undertake those risks that we will have the ability to show who we really are. C. S. Lewis wrote:
God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (The Case for Christianity, (first published 1942)
Principles of Good Government
In this chapter, Mosiah gives us the Principles of Good Government:
- Limit the amount of power that goes to individuals. (Mosiah 29:8-10)
a. for the sake of the nation
b. for the sake of the individual
We should recognize the corrupting nature of power and limit the power given to one individual. (Think of Saul in the Old Testament, who was extremely humble at first, “hiding among the stuff,” but then was slowly corrupted by the absolute power of the kingship. See 1 Samuel 10:21-22)
2. Govern by law – Government itself will be bound by law. (Mosiah 29:11)
3. The best laws are those that most closely resemble the laws of God – and the worst laws are those that are furthest from the laws of God.
Mosiah 29:25 – The people of Mosiah were to be governed by laws given by God.
4. Be careful of special interest groups – The majority make righteous decisions. (Mosiah 29:26)
If the majority chooses wrong, the entire society has had it! There is no hope for them and destruction will come! (Mosiah 29:27) A special interest group would have gone wrong sooner. An individual would have gone wrong sooner. As a general principle, whoever the majority elects is probably the best choice.
5. Checks and balances will be provided by a good government on those who have power.
Mosiah 29:28-29 Higher judges are to judge the lower judges.
D&C 98:5-7 If a law is not constitutional, it comes of evil. Adding “more” or “less” to the constitution will cause problems. There must be a balance between the emphasis on the rights and privileges of an individual and responsibilities of the same. These lie on a continuum, and require a delicate balance.
|INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS||PUBLIC GOOD AND SAFETY|
|Mosiah 29:32 “every man to enjoy rights and privileges”||Mosiah 29:34 “every man to bear his part” (of the burden)|
|Mosiah 29:38 “every man should have an equal chance”||Mosiah 29:38 “willingness to answer for their own sins”|
Mosiah 29:40 Mosiah emphasizes that, in government, “lucre … doth corrupt the soul.”
The Nature of Kingship in the Ancient World
This change in the form of government instituted by Mosiah was a “mighty change” indeed. I never realized how novel the idea of individual responsibility was until I delved into the subject of kings in antiquity. I gained many insights into the widespread presence of kingship in the ancient world from an article by Gregory S. Dundas, “Kingship, Democracy, and the Message of the Book of Mormon, BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 2 (2017): 58. 2. Dundas observes that this transformation in the nature of government was “crucial—indeed, pivotal” in this narrative of the Nephite people. He notes that “kingship was the most common system of government in the ancient world” because it was considered the “most natural form of government” in the ancient world, and even the medieval periods, other types of governments not even given consideration.
Before 1800, most kings were regarded as gods or, “as semidivine representatives of the gods.” In Egypt, the king, or pharaoh was referred to as a god himself, or a son of an Egyptian deity – such as Re or Amun. In the words of Dundas, “Pharaoh acted as the principal intercessor between deity and the people.” Acting as chief priest, he represented the Egyptian people before the gods. I traveled to Egypt many years ago, and saw many depictions of the king himself making pious offerings to the gods. I was told that the Egyptian priesthood took a secondary role in merely acting in the king’s stead out of practical necessity. In many stelae, Pharaoh was frequently depicted in close association with the gods as he gave service to them.
The kingship was essential to the entire notion of maintaining cosmic order, or Maat, a fundamental concept that comprised such matters as justice, truth, and law. Maat was the universal order established by the sun god Re in the time of creation when primordial chaos had been overcome.9 But its divine creation at the beginning of the world did not mean that it could be passively maintained thereafter. Maat had to be actively established again and again through right behavior.
This applied to all mankind, but the Pharaoh was directly responsible for maintaining Maat by ruling justly and performing service to the gods. Dundas explains that “doing Maat demanded the protection of the needs of the socially underprivileged, maintaining a proper balance between the protection of ownership rights and the needs of the poor.” Mesopotamian kings were also seen as shepherds of the people, despite their absolute power.
In light of this deep-seated tradition, it was indeed remarkable that Mosiah would have been so confident that giving up the throne was in the best interests of his people!
Dundas also provides interesting insights into the concept of kingship in the Book of Mormon:
In light of this relationship between king and people, it should come as no surprise when the people of the Book of Mormon repeatedly beg for a king to rule them. They were simply acting like a typical ancient people. Kingship was naturally the system with which they were most comfortable, which resulted in repeated attempts to establish kings throughout their history (emphasis added).
We see this in the beginning of the Book of Mormon, following the death of Lehi, when Nephi and his followers separated themselves from their brethren. “And it came to pass that they would that I should be their king. But I, Nephi, was desirous that they should have no king; nevertheless, I did for them according to that which was in my power” (2 Ne. 5:18). But Nephi had a fundamental opposition to the rule of kings. Dundas writes, “There was in Hebrew thought a tradition that opposed kingship as an unnecessary intrusion between the people and their God, and Nephi seems to tap into that tradition.”22 Nevertheless, despite Nephi’s refusal to assume the kingship, the people consistently looked to him “as a king or a protector” and depended on him “for safety” (2 Ne. 6:2). Dundas elaborates,
Nephi, despite his aversion to holding the kingship himself, ultimately gave in to popular demand prior to his death and “anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings” (Jacob 1:9). The mention of anointing a king is key here, because it indicates that the institution of the “sacral kingship” from the old world persisted into Nephite society. The king, as we have already seen, typically possessed, as a result of his anointing, a special status that placed him in a special relationship with the divine.24 This conclusion is supported by the speech of King Benjamin when he tells the people not to view him as more than human, suggesting that the people did just that (Mosiah 2:10).25
This clash between the Nephite people’s desire for a king and their leaders’ opposition to kingship persists throughout the Book of Mormon. This leads to the various attempts to restore or reintroduce the kingship into Nephite society during the period of the judgeship.
The Nature of the Judgeship
Exactly how much power did the chief judge actually have, and how did his power differ from that of a king? Mosiah 29 outlines a system of higher and lower judges, in which the higher judges have the power to judge the lesser judges (Mosiah 29:28) and a group of lower judges can be specially appointed with the power to judge the higher judges (Mosiah 29:29). Although we know little of how any of this worked in practice, we know about the office of chief judge, which is not specifically mentioned in Mosiah’s proclamation. We are told that Alma the Younger “was appointed to be the first chief judge, he being also the high priest, his father having conferred the office upon him, and having given him the charge concerning all the affairs of the church” (Mosiah 29:42). What powers did Alma have as chief judge?
He was clearly empowered to judge legal cases. In the very first year of Alma’s “reign,” a man named Nehor was brought before him to be judged for the murder of Gideon. The chief judge’s powers did not stop with actual judicial decisions. We are repeatedly told that the chief judge was “governor” of the land (Alma 2:16; 4:17; 50:39; 60:1–2; Hel. 1:5, 13; 3 Ne. 1:1.) This seems to be the principal reason why we always hear about the “reign” of the chief judge. He was in fact the ruler of the land. The chief judge was also the military leader: “Now Alma, being the chief judge and the governor of the people of Nephi, therefore he went up with his people, yea, with his captains, and chief captains, yea, at the head of his armies” (Alma 2:16). With respect to term of office, it seems clear that the chief judge was appointed for life. Except in the case of Alma, who deliberately gave up his chief judgeship to focus on the spiritual affairs of the church (see Alma 4:16–18), there is no indication that judges ever retired.
It is clear that the chief judge was a powerful figure. How did his power differ from that of the kings who came before hm? Most importantly, he did not possess immunity from judgment. As we stated earlier, Mosiah stresses in his description of the new system that higher judges (presumably including the chief judge himself) could be called to account for any judgments he made which were not deemed righteous judgments “according to the law which has been given” (Mosiah 29:28).
Most importantly, the chief judge he did not possess the ability to change the established laws. We are told in the first chapter of Alma that Mosiah had “established laws,” which were “acknowledged by the people; therefore they were obliged to abide by the laws which he had made” (Alma 1:1). This suggests that the chief judge did not have legislative powers. The laws were already established, and the people—even the chief judge himself—did not have the power to alter them.
There is an interesting exception to this rule, however. Nephihah, when he was placed in the judgment seat, was given the 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” (Alma 4:16). This limited legislative power seems to have been an exception to the established power of a chief judge and was given him “according to the voice of the people” (4:16). This stands in stark contrast to the powers of a king, who could change the law by whim. According to Mosiah, although a righteous king would enact laws and rule in accordance with the laws and commandments of God (Mosiah 29:13), a wicked king, on the other hand, had the ability to tear up the laws of his righteous predecessors and enact laws “after the manner of his own wickedness” (Mosiah 29:22–23).
Dundas points out, “Above all, the fundamental difference between a king and a chief judge was that the chief judge lacked the sacral anointing and all the sacral connotations that accompanied it. Thus, judges lacked the “supernatural status” of the king. They were never identified as God’s son. Never once is a chief judge “consecrated” like kings and priests. They were always appointed.”41
The Reign of the Judges Begins
After appointment of the first judges, we are told that the people “were exceedingly rejoiced” (Mosiah 29:39). Mormon then declares that “there was continual peace through the land” (Mosiah 29:43). It sounds like the new government is a grand success!
Unfortunately, however, the very opposite soon became true. In the very first year of the new government, immediately after the deaths of Alma the Elder and King Mosiah, a man named Nehor began practicing priestcraft and committed a murder (Alma 1:2–10). Regrettably, this was not an isolated case, but rather was the first in a long series of events that ultimately led to the virtual destruction of the Nephite state. A civil war broke out in the fifth year of the judges over the restoration of the monarchy, followed by a long series of wars and contentions, each of them driven not by the Lamanites, but by Nephite dissenters. The next one hundred years were filled with rebellions, wars, and contentions, during which several chief judges were assassinated, and the capital city of Zarahemla taken captive.
Let’s talk more about Nehor. Nehor preached what “he termed to be the word of God” while ironically “bearing down against the church” of God (Alma 1:3). First, he taught that priests should become popular and be supported by the people rather than have “to labor with their hands” (Alma 1:3). Second, he preached “that all mankind should be saved at the last day.” With no effort on their part, “all men should have eternal life” (Alma 1:4).
Nehor’s teachings became so popular that many Nephites practiced what he preached: “they began to support him and give him money” (Alma 1:5). “His selfish appeal to a life of spiritual ease without the acceptance of personal responsibility for our choices remains a siren call in our world today. Such a call can lure God’s children from the covenant path of following Jesus Christ, with its attendant blessings of repentance, growth, service, and sacrifice” (See Benjamin H. White, Nehor’s Narcissism: The Influence of a Popular Renegade, Ensign, April 2020).
Even after his “ignominious death,” Nehor’s influence continued to infiltrate Nephite culture and politics because of the motives of those who accepted his false doctrines. Nehor’s followers demonstrated a love for “the vain things of the world,” including “costly apparel” and “riches and honor.” They told lies, committed whoredoms, and persecuted believers (see Alma 1:16, 32).
Are we immune from the influence of Nehor’s toxic teachings today? We would do well to examine our hearts and our motives. White’s Ensign article prompts us to ask ourselves these questions: Do we ever long for the praise of the world? Do we use our prosperity for unrighteous purposes? Are we tempted by sexual practices God has prohibited? Do we exercise unrighteous dominion at home, at work, or in the world to gratify our pride? Do we hide our sins?
As you read Alma 1:2–4, and are able to identify the falsehoods in Nehor’s teachings, you’ll probably notice that they are taught alongside of partial truths. [Does this technique sound familiar? Think of the Garden of Eden scenario, where Satan beguiles Eve with partial truths.] Gideon tried to preach truth to Nehor, “with the words of God,” but the dispute ends in Gideon’s murder (Alma 1:9). For this murder, Nehor was arrested and brought before Alma, the chief judge, who ultimately condemned him to death (Alma 1:4).
Gregory Dundas suggests that there are several hints in the text concerning the Nehor incident that indicate that something much more complex and even more sinister was developing than Mormon’s narration tells us directly.
In the first place, Mormon has an odd habit of avoiding naming Nehor by name. Prior to verse 15, he instead refers to him several times by circumlocution. At first, we are told only that Nehor was “a man who was large, and was noted for his much strength” (Alma 1:2). In verse 10, Mormon identifies him merely as “the man who slew [Gideon].” The circumstances of his death are also described with evasive language, as though Mormon were deliberately avoiding a description of what actually happened: “And there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death” (Alma 1:15).
We soon learn that Nehor’s execution did not put an end to his teachings (Alma 1:16), unlike the situation with Sherem in Jacob 7:23. Nehor’s teachings seem to have caught on very quickly and become quite popular despite his execution. The record states that these followers of Nehor and the members of the church had disputes, sometimes coming to the point of physical blows, and hitting each other “with their fists” (Alma 1:22), yet there were no further deaths nor, it seems, any immediate political consequences. Many “hearts were hardened, and their names were blotted out,” and many withdrew themselves” from the church” (Alma 1:24).
This was a “great trial to those that did stand fast in the faith” (Alma 1:25), “nevertheless, they were steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments of God, and they bore with patience the persecution which was heaped upon them.” It is amazing to me that they could remain so steadfast! How did they do this?
Despite the many that left the church, these people remained faithful. They were receptive to the words of God (Alma 1:26). When the priests preached to them, they “left their labors” to listen to him, and afterwards, “they all returned again diligently to their labors,” and “they were all equal,” and “they did all labor,” even the priests. They imparted of their substance to the poor, and did not wear costly apparel. Thus, they began to have “continual peace again” (Alma 1:27-28). [It is interesting to note that clothing is mentioned fourteen times in the Book of Mormon as a sign of pride or humility.] See “Lifted Up in the Pride of Their Eyes”)
This is not surprising, because when you live according to God’s words, you receive God’s pay. They prospered, and received so many material blessings that they became “far more wealthy than those who did not belong to the church” (Alma 1:29-31). We might expect the next sentence to be, and “pride grew in their hearts.” Surprisingly, this is not so! We read that even “in their prosperous circumstances they did not send away any who were naked or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.”
Remaining Steadfast and Immovable
How do keep from having our faith shaken? How can we remain “steadfast and immovable.” I gained many insights from an article in the April 2020 Ensign called “Sherem’s Skepticism: The Tactics of a Faith Shaker, by Benjamin H. White. We will all be tested. Not one of us is immune to the onslaughts of the deceiver. These truths can apply to anything that shakes our faith.
- Your faith in Christ will be attacked. When he comes among the Nephites, Sherem declares “that there should be no Christ” (Jacob 7:2). Likewise, some people today declare that Jesus of Nazareth was not divine and that if God exists, He is irrelevant. They rely instead on their own learning and prosperity. If anything could destroy us today, it would be to disconnect ourselves from the source of all light and protection. Jesus Christ is the rock of our salvation, the only true foundation that can survive hurricane-force winds of doubt and adversity (see Helaman 5:12).
- You will be enticed. Sherem labors diligently to “lead away the hearts of the people,” using “much flattery” (Jacob 7:3–4; see also 2 Nephi 28:22). He manifests his ulterior motives through his knowledge of language and his power of speech. Some individuals in our day likewise adopt the adversary’s methods to attempt to shake the faith of others. Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has warned: “Satan is a subtle snake, sneaking into our minds and hearts when we have let our guard down, faced a disappointment, or lost hope. He entices us with flattery, a promise of ease, comfort, or a temporary high when we are low. He justifies pride, unkindness, dishonesty, discontent, and immorality, and in time we can be ‘past feeling’ [1 Nephi 17:45].”3
- You will be accused. Following in the tradition of Satan, “the accuser of our brethren” (Revelation 12:10), Sherem accuses Jacob of teaching false doctrine (see Jacob 7:7). Today some individuals similarly claim that the Church needs to change to accommodate the world. The Sherems of today sound accusations against the Church, which they say is outdated and led by men who are too old and out of touch. Those who are quick to challenge the servants of God but slow to pay them heed become vulnerable to the power of the adversary.
- You will face misinterpretation of God’s word. Sherem misinterprets scripture by missing the entire point of the law of Moses (see Jacob 7:7), which points “our souls to [Christ]” (Jacob 4:5). Questions of scriptural interpretation can plague members of the Church who find perceived inaccuracies or misinterpretations in the word of God. If we do not diligently and prayerfully study His word, our own interpretations and biases may overshadow what the united voices of prophets and apostles have consistently taught and emphasized in the scriptures.
- You will be asked to “prove it.” When Sherem is confounded by Jacob, he falls back on the faith-shaking fail-safe: “Show me a sign” (Jacob 7:13). But divine demonstration does not provide concrete flooring in a matter of seconds. Likewise, foundations of faith are not built on the flippant quip, “Prove it,” but rather on prayer, study, service, and righteousness.
Benjamin White teaches us that we can avoid being deceived by today’s faith-shakers
—or becoming like them ourselves—if we appeal to the same three things Jacob appealed to: the Spirit, the scriptures, and the prophets (see Jacob 7:8, 10, 11), especially living ones. This triangle of faith can give us stability and strengthen our spiritual defense as we build our testimony on Jesus Christ and the strength of his words. We can become like Jacob, whose faith “could not be shaken” (Jacob 7:5). We can become “steadfast and immovable.”
This picture changes dramatically in chapter 2. At the very beginning of the fifth year of the judges, a certain Amlici, a “very cunning man,” who was “after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword” (again, note Mormon’s strange reluctance to name Nehor), “began to be very powerful” and his followers “began to endeavor to establish Amlici to be a king over the people” (Alma 2:1–2). It seems there arose a movement among the people to reestablish the kingship. It grew quickly and eventually led to a major civil war. We wonder, “How did Nehor’s philosophy become so popular in four years following his death that it seems to have been embraced by close to half the population?”
In his article on kingship, Dundas points out some insights I had never put together before. He asks, “Is this the full story? It would appear not. In fact, Nehor appears to have been part of a much greater movement from the very beginning.” Chapter 21 of Alma relates the account of Aaron’s missionary labors in the land of Jerusalem in Lamanite territory. You will recall that when the sons of Mosiah set off to preach among the Lamanites, they split up and each went a separate way.
Aaron first went to a region known as Jerusalem, to a “great city” of the same name. He was surprised to find that the city was populated not only with Lamanites, but also with “Amalekites” and the “people of Amulon” (Alma 21:1–3). The Amulonites were the remnant of the priests of Noah who had made friends with the Lamanites and settled in Lamanite territory (see Mosiah 24). The Amalekites, on the other hand, seem to appear in the story out of nowhere. We are told, however, that “they had built synagogues after the order of the Nehors; for many of the Amalekites and the Amulonites were after the order of the Nehors” (Alma 21:4). The meaning of the term “order of the Nehors” is never fully explained, although Mormon had referred previously to Amlici as “being after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword” (Alma 2:1).
Please note that Aaron’s encounter with the Amalekites took place in the first year of the reign of the judges—the same year that Nehor himself appeared in Zarahemla and met his death (see Alma 17:6, with 21:1 and 17:13). This suggests that the “order of the Nehors” was not something that sprang up in Zarahemla following the death of Nehor, but had already been in existence before that time. Dundas concludes, “Indeed, it seems likely that Nehor himself may have been a resident of the city of Jerusalem, and it seems likely that he first propagated a following among the people there before journeying to Zarahemla.”
But what about the Amalekites? We read that they, like Nehor, believed that “God will save all men” (Alma 21:6; compare Alma 1:4). They also rejected the prophecies of the coming of Christ (Alma 21:8). The Nephites typically named political parties after the founder of the sect, much as they named their cities after the person who founded them (see Alma 8:7). If that is true of the Amalekites, then who was Amaleki? We have not seen this name before in the record. The answer to this mystery appears to be found in the story of Amlici in Alma, chapter 2. J. Christopher Conkling has built a compelling case that the “mysterious Amalekites” were the same as the Amlicites, the difference in name being attributable merely to alternate spellings in the original manuscript, the c being rendered as a k. (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 1 (2005): 108–17.) He concludes that Amlici must have been an associate of Nehor’s, and a member of his “order.” He and his associates had built up their movement and “order” over several years, both before and after the death of Nehor.
The solution to this mystery also helps solve the question of how Amlici, in chapter 2 of Alma, appears to have built up a huge following in less than a year (Alma 2:2). It seems that it was not only Amlici building upon the work of Nehor, but that he had a movement behind him from the start, with his primary base in the city of Jerusalem in the land of Nephi. Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that Amlici was able to draw tens of thousands of followers within a very few years. Perhaps he appealed to the people because of their long-standing desire for a king and the allure of universal salvation – no doubt he had a golden tongue.
Is this not similar to the plan described by Lucifer, who promised to “redeem all mankind, that one soul would not be lost” (Moses 4:1) Rather than force everyone to be good, I believe he was going to change the requirements for salvation. We know that Satan “persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one” (Moroni 7:17). And yet he also promised salvation to all.
The followers of Amlici were not successful in winning the vote, as it turned out, but they did not give up their desires for power. Instead, they split themselves into a separate political entity, consecrating Amlici as their own king, and attempted to take the city by force. This rebellion quickly grew into a small civil war. The people of Nephi armed themselves with “weapons of war, of every kind” (Alma 2:12) as did the rebels. Amlici appointed many “rulers and leaders over his people, to lead them to war against their brethren” (Alma 2:14). The army had to be called up, with the chief judge and governor at its head (Alma 2:16). Thousands on both sides were killed. The Nephite spies reported to Alma, that the Amlicites had joined with an army of Lamanites, which struck them as amazing. However, this seems quite natural once we are aware of their base in the land of Jerusalem.
The Nephites raced back to Zarahemla, their capital, desiring to protect their families, before the Lamanite army could take the city. (Alma 2:26). Despite the Lamanites and the Amlicites being “as numerous as the sands of the sea almost” (Alma 2:27-28), the Lord heard their cries and strengthened them. Alma, as governor and chief commander, confronted Amlici face to face, and pleading with the Lord for strength, slew him with his sword (Alma 2:29-31). Ultimately, the Nephite forces were able to cross the river Sidon because it was filled with the bodies of the slain Lamanites, a grisly picture. Seeing this, the enemy fled before them into the wilderness of Hermounts. [As an aside, Hugh Nibley has proposed that this hunting area full of “wild and ravenous beasts” (Alma 2:37) was named after such a district in Egypt – Hermonthis, the land of Month, the Egyptian Pan – the god of wild places and things.] As I have said before, you just can’t make this stuff up. The Book of Mormon is an ancient record.]
Amlici and his ideas became so popular and so widespread that even following his death and the end of the civil war, the threat did not disappear. Although many were sobered by the deaths of tens of thousands in the war, and many were baptized into the church, after two years, Alma saw that wickedness began to enter into the church. He decided to take the drastic step of resigning from the office of chief judge and turning it over to Nephihah (Alma 4:16–17). He firmly believed that the only way to maintain order in society was to get people to repent of their sins and turn to God.
How Do We Distinguish Ourselves
Mormon’s commentary helps us evaluate the lasting impact our attitudes and actions can have on others. He uses the word distinguished (see Alma 2:11; 3:4) while explaining that Amlici’s followers desired so passionately to differentiate themselves from the Nephites that they changed their name to “Amlicites” and “marked themselves with red in their foreheads” (Alma 3:4).
Contrast the external change of the Amlicites with the internal change of another Book of Mormon people. Mormon also uses the word distinguished to describe the spiritual transformation of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies (see Alma 23:16; 27:26–27). For all time, they are remembered as being so “converted unto the Lord” that they “never did fall away” (Alma 23:6). They were known for their internal conversion, “for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ, even unto the end” (Alma 27:27).
They also received a new name but were differentiated by the presence of a new heart. We would do well to ask ourselves, “What will we be distinguished for?” What constitutes true individuality? Elder David A. Bednar has said:
[The] fashions and trends of the world frequently promote a false individuality that is nothing more than a shallow, superficial, and curious outward conformity. True individuality is the product of spirituality and is not a function of trinkets or ornaments attached to or hanging from parts of our body. The spiritual basis of individuality is never more evident to me than when I worship in the House of the Lord, and everyone is dressed in similar white clothing and looks essentially the same. In that setting, no fads or fashion statements are necessary. The unity and outward sameness of appearance in the temple permits the individual spirit to shine through. That, brothers and sisters, is the only type of individuality that really matters.
(“Ye Are the Temple of God” (Ricks College devotional, Jan. 11, 2000)
Boyd K. Packer said:
You cannot have the image of the world and the spirit of the Lord. To the degree that you are successful in acquiring the image of the world, you forfeit the right to the Spirit. (Missionary Conference, England, Wells Road Chapel, Bristol England, December 4, 1970.)
The “word of God” and “pure testimony” can change hearts.
There can be little doubt that Alma bore a tremendous responsibility as both president of the church and chief judge over the Nephite nation. Thus, at the commencement of the ninth year of the judges we read that Alma was troubled by what he saw. These observations made him take drastic action. He saw that the wicked example of many church members was leading unbelievers to justify their iniquity because of the hypocrisy of the supposed believers. He saw that there were great class distinctions, those who had riches becoming prideful and despising needy. (See Alma 4:11-16 ) Given the wickedness that had been done among his people, he felt that it was in the best interests of the society to spend all of his time preaching the word of God to them.
Why did he give up his position as Chief Judge? With the chief judgeship left securely in the hands of a wise man, Alma began to carry out his mission to “bear down in pure testimony” to the members of the church. (Alma 4:19). The word pure derives from the Latin purus which not only has the meaning of “clear, plain and absolute,” but also “clean, cleansing, and purifying.” Notice in Alma 5:45-48 that the word KNOW is repeated 10 times.
A number of years later we read of Alma’s philosophy when it comes to internal dissension among the Nephites. Alma 31:5:
And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.
The “virtue” of the word.” The ancient Romans used the Latin word virtus (derived from vir, their word for man) to refer to all of the “excellent qualities of men, including physical strength, valorous conduct, and moral rectitude.” In Greek, the word virtue arête (aretay), was a term that referred to “excellence.” In military terms, the men with arête were the ones who would never retreat from battle, but would fight to the last breath. This is the word that Paul used when referring to “anything virtuous” as quoted in the 13th Article of Faith. (I once saw a picture of a football team with ARETE printed on their T-shirts to encourage them to play with excellence.) Anti-Christs try to enforce with physical power (Nehor slew Gideon with the sword.) Christ’s followers encourage with virtue.
Why do you think that Alma would choose such an action? Because he had personally experienced the power of Jesus Christ and he KNEW the effect that it could have upon individuals.
Alma also employed other methods to resist Anti-Christs such as Korihor. Sometimes the best way to deal with a contentious situation is to make no reply. We don’t always have to answer the philosophical manure of Anti-Christs. Alma 30:29 tells us that “when the chief judge and the high priest saw that he would revile even against God, they would make no reply to his words.” Sometimes the best way to respond to such reviling is to do nothing.
Another important thing to remember is that we do not resist Anti-Christs because we fear them – we resist them because they are false. When some men conspired against him in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith responded: “C. L. Higbee says that I had men’s heads cut off in Missouri, and that I had a sword run through the hearts of the people that I wanted to kill and put out of the way. I won’t swear out a warrant against them, for I don’t fear any of them; they would not scare off an old setting hen”(HC 6:11:272).
We need to keep a sure foundation – keeping up the daily acts that keep our testimonies strong. (See Alma 31:9-10) Occasionally, turn the tables, and go on the offensive as Alma did in Alma 30:37-44, but only when moved to do so by the spirit. No one can argue with your personal testimony! Alma told Korihor, “I know, and I know why I know.” He had received many evidences of the existence of God – the testimony of the brethren, the witness of the holy prophets, the scriptures, and most of all, “even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”
Every time that I go to the zoo and see the peacocks, I wonder how they could “just happen” to turn out that way if they evolved from a single cell. When I see a peacock, I know there is a Supreme Creator, the Master of the Universe. I love the scripture in the book of Job where the Lord finally answers Job’s question, “Why are these terrible things happening to me? I’m a good guy!” God’s answer in Job 39:13 was, “Can you make a peacock’s wing? If you can’t, then just let me do things my own way. Just trust me…” A friend gave me a temple bag lined with peacock feathers because she knew I loved this verse. I think of the omniscience of God every time I serve in the temple.
So, what is the message for us? Alma was a man changed by the atonement of Jesus Christ. As a changed man, he went out and tried to change his world. Central to his message is that change rarely comes about in one big fell swoop, rather, it is comes through the day to day revelatory experiences that all of us experience. We need to look for them and expect them. Heavenly ministrations such as — a Mount Sinai, or an experience on the road to Damascus, a Sacred Grove, or something similar to Alma and the Sons of Mosiah are rare indeed. We need to realize that revelation is a process, and that a testimony grows from a seed.