Monday, March 17, 2014

Guest Post: Alma's Secret Combination in Mosiah 18

John Kammeyer won his Juris Doctor from the Northwestern School of Law.  He has three books of scriptural research published at The Nephite Art of War (2012), Warfare in Mesoamerica: Battles in the Book of Mormon (2012) The Book of Exodus: An Israelite Endowment (2014).  I enjoyed the idea of viewing Alma's movement as a political insurgency.  It reminded me of historian Mark Grimsley's argument that the Civil Rights movement was an insurgency, and suggests that our conception of warfare might expand beyond conventional armies and battles.
Would it surprise you to learn that Alma the Elder was running a secret combination? While his purposes were good rather than ill, it still had all the elements of a subversive group—and King Noah certainly took it as such.

(Mosiah 18:1a) And now, it came to pass that Alma, who had fled from the servants of King Noah, repented of his sins and iniquities,

The first thing an insurgency needs is a leader with a cause. Daniel C. Peterson and others note that few movements in the ancient world were purely secular, they almost always had a religious motive or rational.[1] There is nothing unsavory in saying Alma’s motives were mixed.

First Phase: The goal of an insurgency is to separate the people from the government. According to the Wikipedia:

Maoist theory of people's war divides warfare into three phases. In the first phase, the guerrillas gain the support of the population through attacks on the machinery of government and the distribution of propaganda.[2]

Every successful insurgency has to (1) discredit government ideology, and (2) replace it with one the people will believe in.

(Mosiah 18:1b) and went about privately among the people, and began to teach the words of Abinadi—

Alma would have started recruiting among his own household and servants. According to Che Guevara: “At the outset there is a more or less homogeneous group…that devotes itself almost exclusively to hiding in the wildest and most inaccessible places.”[3]

(Mosiah 18:3) 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.

Alma had established a kind of first-phase insurgency, politicizing the people, in Maoist terms, or “preparing the minds of the people to be faithful,” as Captain Moroni (Alma 48:7) would have put it. Or in another setting, it looks like the beginning of the Maccabean revolt, as described by Herzog and Gichon:

For approximately a year the rebels made their preparations in relative peace. Emphasis was laid on the reaffirmation of the principles of Judaism for which they were fighting. They defended themselves whenever necessary, but initiated few operations while organizing their base. At the same time they strengthened contacts with the villages in the countryside and spread the story of the revolt. Soon an effective intelligence-gathering organization was developed as a people’s militia grew under the leadership of Judah the Maccabee…[4]

Judah Maccabee laid the foundation of his movement on righteousness, and ideology, and recruiting the countryside.

Second Phase: According to Wikipedia:

In the second phase, escalating attacks are made on the government's military and vital institutions.[5]

This proceeds from indoctrination, to progressively denying the government the ability to function, by means of a functional organization.

(Mosiah 18:4) 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.

The king was still looking for him. Noah assumed Alma would attempt to raise up a rebellion against him, and he “did hide himself…from the searches of the king.”

(Mosiah 18:7) 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.

We note from Alma 31:5 that

…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—

According to Che: “the guerrilla, having taken up inaccessible positions out of reach of the enemy...ought to proceed to the gradual weakening of the enemy.”[6]  Rather than subverting the government by the sword, Alma was subverting it by the word of God.

(Mosiah 18: 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.

A covenant, binding them to God and to their leader, Alma, would have been a powerful unifying element. They were swearing their lives to him and to God. They were serious about this.

Alma started to establish cells among the larger population:

(Mosiah 18:18) 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.

Initially, there were about four cells, each led by a priest, while Alma hid out in his wilderness refuge. It was an urban conspiracy, like the later Gadianton Robbers. While building the organization, he continued to indoctrinate.

(Mosiah 18:19) 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.

To maintain the loyalty of the group, he had to keep them focused on his teachings, his ideology. There could be no rivals to his leadership.

(Mosiah 18:20) Yea, even he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people. (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. (22a) And thus he commanded them to preach.

To subvert the government, he had to keep the people focused on the covenant with God.

(Mosiah 18:22b) 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.

Living among a larger population, they would be able to unobtrusively observe what was going on, and know if the King had learned of them.

(Mosiah 18:24) And he also commanded them that the priests whom he had ordained should labor with their own hands for their support.

This was to establish equality among his people. Next, he had to instill a functioning social system, in order to keep them focused on the covenant.

(Mosiah 18:25) 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.

They were organized in cells of fifty people, or about six to eight households each. Recruiting them from extended households would ensure the secrecy of the movement—everybody was related, everyone knew who was involved. On normal days, the priests would perhaps go from household to household, like a secret home teaching route. There are other ways the entire group could have met, such as at market days and national festivals. They knew their own calendar and could make arrangements. Since the movement was based on family groups, outsiders wouldn’t be able to tell if it was a family barbeque or a sacrament meeting.

(Mosiah 18:26) 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.

Daniel J. Elazar also notes:

[The Levites] had to support themselves by their own labor and could not count on maintaining themselves through their ritual services. They were not a clergy living off the labor of others. This is an old Jewish tradition, part of the approach to civic life of the edah.[7]

Compare this with the Priests of Noah, who were glutting themselves on the people’s goods. There must have been a lot of bitterness about this. A secular reason for the priests to support themselves was to maintain the clandestine character of the movement. Nobody was to stand out from the larger population.

In the second phase of the insurgency, the organization grows and becomes more sophisticated. Alma would have led the group. The priests, an embryonic Council of Elders, would have transmitted his teachings to the group. In Marxist terms, a sort of Central Committee.

It was common in Semitic societies to have a joint presidency between priestly and lay judges.[8] The lay judges, led by Helam, would have had a lot to do at this point, ensuring the welfare of the group. It parallels the modern relationship between the LDS Stake President and the Bishop. Alma and the priests oversaw the spiritual welfare of the people, and Helam oversaw the temporal affairs.

(Mosiah 18:27) 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.

Communalism would instill a sense of community and of shared hardships and danger.

(Mosiah 18:29) 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.

Charity was part of the covenant, as we find both in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon.

In Mosiah 18:31 we note that “these things were done in the borders of the land, that they might not come to the knowledge of the king.” It was a secret society.

Third Phase: According to the Wikipedia:

In the third phase, conventional fighting is used to seize cities, overthrow the government, and take control of the country.[9]

There is no way to know how far Alma was aiming to go with this; presumably, he was trying to bring the whole society back to righteousness. It didn’t reach a third phase, because King Noah discovered the movement.

(Mosiah 18:32) 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.

It doesn’t sound like he’d penetrated the group, but too many people were beating a path out to Alma’s thicket.[10]

(Mosiah 18:33) 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.

It took a while for the king to figure out what was going on. He must have sent his soldiers out to the Waters of Mormon, unaware of the larger character of the movement. So while they were (literally) beating the bushes for Alma, people were filtering out of the city and assembling elsewhere for departure.

(Mosiah 18:35) And they were in number about four hundred and fifty souls.

The goal of an insurgency is survival, even if this means retreating and giving up territory. According to Mao, in an only slightly different context: “A strategic retreat is a planned strategic step taken by an inferior force for the purpose of conserving its strength and biding its time to defeat the enemy, when it finds itself confronted with a superior force whose offensive it is unable to smash quickly.”[11]

Bear in mind that Alma was only 80 miles away, once they settled in the Land of Helam. He had no intention of returning to overthrow Noah, but he would not have been the first or last rebel leader to flee into the wilderness in order to fight another day.

Is this reading too much into Mosiah 18? Not at all, it makes sense of the story in both religious and temporal contexts.


Elazar, Daniel J. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

“Deuteronomy as Israel's Ancient Constitution: Some Preliminary Reflections.”

Herzog, Chaim, and Gichon, Mordecai. Battles of the Bible. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole, 1997.

Ricks, Stephen, and Hamblin, William, Warfare in the Book of Mormon. SLC: Deseret, 1990.

Wikipedia, “Guerrilla Warfare.”

[1] Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin, Warfare in the Book of Mormon. (SLC: Deseret, 1990), 204, passim; and note 96, page 221.
[2] Wikipedia, “Guerrilla Warfare.”
[3] Warfare in the Book of Mormon, 150.
[4] Chaim Herzog and Mordecai Gichon, Battles of the Bible, (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole, 1997), 268.
[5] Wikipedia, “Guerrilla Warfare.”
[6] Warfare in The Book of Mormon, 154.
[7] Daniel J. Elazar, “Deuteronomy as Israel's Ancient Constitution: Some Preliminary Reflections,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
[8] The pattern exists in the Old Testament, DDS, Testament of the 12 Patriarchs, the Book of Mormon, and even the Doctrine and Covenants.
[9] Wikipedia, “Guerrilla Warfare.”
[10] We can read between the lines: somebody got caught, and peached on Alma. His fate must have been quit unpleasant after the king was through with him.
[11] Warfare in the Book of Mormon, 155.


Michaela Stephens said...

Maybe it looks like an insurgency, but I think it is inaccurate to call it a secret combination, since secret combinations (according to BofM) combine to get power and gain and do all manner of wickedness and put to death those who tell their secrets.

Intriguing thoughts nonetheless.

Unknown said...

I'll concede the point, but it is clear he was attempting to subvert the government, which, in fact, did not long survive his departure.

Anonymous said...

"Alma would have started recruiting among his own household and servants."

And since Alma was a former priest of Noah, he must have had multiple wives, since all the priests of Noah had multiple wives, and so then he became the first Nephite polygamist prophet, which also means that since Alma was the first Nephite to establish a church of Christ in this land, the church of Christ was first established here by a prophet that engaged in polygamy...

LDS Anarchist