Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE
To read more from Daniel C. Peterson, visit Sic Et Non.
Many years ago, though for several years, I was on the mailing list of Utah Missions, Inc., based in Marlow, Oklahoma. Accordingly, each month, I received their grammatically fascinating free tabloid, the Utah Evangel. The Evangel was a treasure trove of logical fallacies and of curious fundamentalist Protestant arguments against my faith, and I found it highly diverting. Well worth the subscription price. (I believe that both UMI and its monthly periodical are now defunct.)
One of the favorite arguments deployed against the claims of the Restoration by the Evangel‘s principal authors, Pastor John L. Smith and Robert McKay — and, for that matter, one of their more serious arguments — involved the Book of Mormon proper name Alma, which belongs to two of the book’s most significant characters.
Pastor Smith and Mr. McKay found it uproariously funny and patently ridiculous that two supposedly ancient and more or less Semitic men bore what everybody knew to be a woman’s name with a Latin etymology. (I don’t recall what examples, if any, they were prone to cite, but instances of Alma as a female personal name aren’t difficult to come by: Alma Mahler [1879-1964], for one, was the wife of the great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, and a composer in her own right. Alma Powell [b. 1937] is the wife of General Colin Powell, former American Secretary of State.)
By contrast, the name is very rarely given to men: While the relevant Wikipedia entry supplies 63 instances of women bearing the name, it provides just three (3) specimens of men named Alma — and those three (“Alma Richards [1890–1963], American Latter-day Saint high jumper,” “Alma Sonne [1884–1977], American Latter-day Saint general authority,” and “Alma O. Taylor [1882–1947], American Latter-day Saint missionary and translator”) all have one very obvious thing in common beyond their masculinity: Manifestly, their naming was influenced by the Book of Mormon.
But the Utah Evangel wasn’t the only anti-Mormon publication to make polemical use of Joseph Smith’s absurd “mistake” of naming two men “Alma.”
So, in numerous public presentations and perhaps elsewhere, I countered with evidence that Alma is, in fact, a demonstrably ancient Semitic masculine personal name. (For a summary of the current state of the ancient evidence, see the entry on Alma on the website of the Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project.)
In the public presentations in which I very briefly commented on Alma, I regularly indicated that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that having the name affixed to two masculine figures isn’t the mistake, let alone the obvious and fatal howler, that anti-Mormon polemicists liked to ridicule. And I stand by that. The folks at the Utah Evangelwere wrong. Their argument fails. The Book of Mormon certainly doesn’t look less ancient or less authentic because it features men named Alma.
I also commonly suggested that what had once seemed a weakness in the Book of Mormon was now evidently an asset: Alma is in fact an anciently attested Semitic masculine personal name — something that Joseph Smith would have been, to put it mildly, very unlikely to know.
I haven’t given such presentations often or at all for quite a number of years now. But transcriptions and recordings of them have received modestly wide distribution.
Since that time, though, I’ve been told that, in fact, there were some non-Latter-day Saint American men before and during the period of Joseph Smith who may have borne the name Alma. (The computerization of genealogical and census materials makes searches for such names far easier than they were even just a few years ago.) I haven’t personally investigated this claim, since Alma isn’t a topic that I address much any more. Perhaps I’ll do it, sometime, but my current priorities lie elsewhere.
If true, though, it would obviously weaken somewhat — though I don’t think that it wholly obviates — my suggestion that Alma represents minor but genuine evidence for the Book of Mormon’s authentic antiquity. But I would want to know how likely Joseph Smith would have been to know of men named Alma. How common was the name among males in early America? Did certain regions favor it more than others? If so, where? In places with which Joseph Smith was familiar?
I address this topic now because somebody challenged me yesterday on the matter, accusing me of lying, of deliberate deceit, because, in the presentations that I used to make in which I would devote perhaps a minute or two to the name Alma, I failed to mention the fact — again, I’m assuming it to be true — that at least a few early American men bore that name.
I wasn’t, of course, seeking to deceive anybody. I was speaking honestly, as I routinely do, on the basis of the information that I had at the time. And, in any event, much of my argument remains quite unaffected.