Both rhetorically and typologically, Alma the Younger occupies the same space in the Book of Mormon that Paul occupies in the New Testament. The typological similarity begins with their conversion stories, which share so many structural elements that they can plausibly be considered variations of the same basic narrative.
After their conversions, the two men continue along similar trajectories. Alma gives up the Chief Judgship and travels throughout the land, visiting the Churches that his father had set up. Paul goes on multiple journeys to set up and visit the Churches of Asia Minor. They both encounter congregations that have become divided and fractious—thereby implicitly rejecting the baptismal covenant to be united in faith. Both Alma and Paul make it clear that followers of Christ must do better.
Alma begins his journey in Zarahemla, the capital that he once governed, with the masterful sermon that takes up most of Alma 5. Significantly, Mormon steps out of the narrative and lets Alma speak for himself, without the editorial commentary so prominent in earlier chapters. The sermon is fairly long but extremely focused, and we can study it profitably in two parts. In the first part, Alma preaches repentance to the people, telling them that Christian salvation requires a “mighty change of heart.” In the second part, Alma tells the people exactly what about their hearts needs to change.
Some variation of the phrase “mighty change of heart” appears five times in Alma 5:
- :7: “Behold he [God] changed their hearts; yeah, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God.”
- :12: “And according to his [Alma the Elder’s] faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart.”
- :13 “And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts.”
- :14: “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?”
- :26: “And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?”
This is important. The mighty change of heart is one of the most rhetorically powerful phrases in the Book of Mormon. It clarifies the meaning of repentance, which is not a rote process of asking God to pardon our sins by saying we’re sorry and promising not to do them anymore.Repentance is the process by which we plead with God to change our nature—to make us different kinds of people than we were before.
Left here, Alma’s discourse on repentance would be too abstract to help us much in actual practice. But Alma does not leave things here. After explaining that repentance is “a mighty change” from one kind of heart to another, Alma goes on to explain in detail exactly what it is about our hearts that we have to change mightily:
53 And now my beloved brethren, I say unto you, can ye withstand these sayings; yea, can ye lay aside these things, and trample the Holy One under your feet; yea, can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yea, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches?
54 Yea, will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another; yea, will ye persist in the persecution of your brethren, who humble themselves and do walk after the holy order of God, wherewith they have been brought into this church, having been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and they do bring forth works which are meet for repentance—
55 Yea, and will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor, and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?
For Alma, these are the signs of apostasy: setting one’s heart upon riches and displaying wealth, considering oneself better than others, and refusing to acknowledge or aid the poor and the needy. These are crimes against the Body of Christ. And they are implicit rejections of the covenants made by the first converts at the Waters of Mormon.
And we can group these sins together easily under the general heading of “selfishness,” which is the natural state of humankind. We are frightened little mammals with an overpowering urge—built into us by millions of years of evolution—to act always in ways that favor our own interests and those of our offspring. The mighty change of heart that Alma speaks of is the mechanism by which God converts us from natural and selfish human beings to divine and selfless disciples of Christ. And the ekklesia—the body of fellow travelers with whom we interact regularly—is the school in which we learn how to love beyond our genetic best interests.
Alma, like Paul, knew well what a mighty change of heart looked like. Both men experienced dramatic conversions that set the stage for their life’s ministries. Alma, though, had an even greater change to make when he became both the head of the Church and the Chief Judge of the land. One way to read Alma’s Zarahemla Sermon is as an explanation of why he gave up the Chief Judgeship and set out to repair the Church.
As the head of both Church and State, Alma was easily the most powerful and influential person in the country. But, as the first four chapters of Alma show us, he did not do either job very well because they kept interfering with each other. His country was embroiled in a civil war for most of his tenure as Chief Judge—a war that he may well have caused by blurring the lines between his two positions and treating a religious rival as an enemy of the state.
In the meantime, nobody was looking after the Church as its congregations fell deeper and deeper into the forms of apostasy outlined above. I think it very that Alma’s closing parable is aimed as much at himself as his audience:
59 For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.
Tending to his flock required Alma to give up his political position and all of its accompanying honors, pomp, and circumstance. It required him to do what Paul would do 200 years later and dedicate his life to setting the Church in order—without the power of the state, which he once commanded, at his back. This conversion was just as difficult and consequential as the one brought about by angelic fiat in his youth. It was a mighty change of heart that would have important consequences for the Church in his generation.