Alma 8-16; 17-20
Literature makes meaning through structure. One of the most important ways that it does this is by constructing parallel narratives and inviting us to read them together. Anyone who has stayed awake all the way through Hamlet knows that Hamlet and Fortinbras are parallel stories—young princes who must find ways to avenge their fathers without sacrificing their states. Much of what Hamlet means lies in the comparisons and contrasts between these two parallel narratives.
Historians do it to. Literary structure is what turns raw data into history. Take, for example, Bruce Catton’s famous framing of the Civil War through the parallel experiences of Grant and Lee. Or, more recently, Ron Chernow’s discussion of the Federalist period through the contrasting figures of Hamilton and Jefferson. The literary structure of Chernow’s biography was so compelling that, I hear, someone turned it into a pretty good play.
And parallel narratives are all over the Book of Mormon: the anti-Christ stories of Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor; the “prophet-from- nowhere” stories of Abindadi and Samuel the Lamanite. Mormon, especially, structured his historical record by setting parallel stories next to each other and asking readers to consider both the similarities and the differences. 
It is in this context that I would like to discuss two of the most well-known missionary journeys in the Latter-day Saint canon, both of which come from the Book of Alma: Alma’s journey to the dissident Nephites in the city of Ammonihah (Alma 8-16), and Ammon’s mission to the Lamanites in the Land of Ishmael (Alma 17-20). Initially, the two stories seem like a case study in similarities. Both are undertaken by young men of the same age, with the same basic history, at the same time—and both take up about the same amount of space in the narrative. Beyond that, though, we have mainly contrasts, which, for efficiency’s sake, I represent in the table below:
|Alma in Ammonihah||Ammon in Ishmael|
|Initial Position||Alma begins his journey to Ammonihah from a position of extreme power and privilege. He is the head of the established church and, for eight years, was also the Chief Judge in the land. And when he resigned that office, he hand picked his successor. Everybody that he encounters knows who he is and knows that he is backed by the power of the state. However, in Ammonihah this works against him, as most of the people in the city were followers of Nehor (whom Alma executed) and supporters of Amlici (against whom Alma fought a bloody civil war).||Ammon enters the land of Ishmael as a stranger with no political or ecclesiastical authority–essentially a blank slate. He is initially taken to the king, who had the power to have him killed or imprisoned on sight, but who, instead, offers him his daughter’s hand in marriage.|
|Intended Audience||Alma is preaching to Nephites who follow the religion of Nehor. All of them know about the Christian religion, which is the established Church in their land, but they have actively rejected it—often (according to examples found in the text) with the full knowledge that they have placed themselves in opposition to God.||Ammon is preaching to Lamanites who do not appear to have ever encountered Christianity before. They have no knowledge of God or Christ, but they do have an intuitive theology, passed down through generations, of a “Great Spirit” that Ammon is able to build upon to teach them the Christian message.|
|Main Rhetorical Objective||Alma is trying to change the behavior of people who know, but have actively rejected the truth. He is trying to effect a “mighty change of heart” of the type that he and the Sons of Mosiah experienced during the days that they persecuted the Church.||Ammon is trying to teach people something that they do not know, and the text gives us reasonable assurances that anybody who will honestly consider the claims that Ammon is making will experience a divine confirmation of their truth.|
|Preferred Teaching Strategies||Ammon calls the people to repentance, preaches impressive sermons, and contends with the lawyers in the public square.||Ammon volunteers to watch the king’s flocks. Then he fights off some bandits. And then he cleans the stables.|
|Result||Alma is unable to persuade the main body of the Ammonihahans to abandon their heresies and their wicked ways, and, as a result, the whole city is destroyed by the Lamanites (but really by God.)||Ammon makes thousands of converts, including King Lamoni (which always helps) and, eventually, the King’s father, who is an even bigger king. The entire political landscape of the region is reshaped by the mass conversions of the Lamanites, who resettle in Nephite territories.|
And all of this brings me to the question in my title: why did Alma’s mission fail miserably while Ammon’s succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest dreams? And yes, I know that a lot of people will object to my calling Alma (a Prophet of God and all) an abject failure. But let’s get real. There is no worse outcome for a missionary than seeing the entire city he was sent to save wiped off the face of the earth for their wickedness. I mean, my mission was not hugely successful by any measure, but at least it didn’t end with God destroying Fresno. The text invites and even requires us to try to answer the question, “what did Alma and Ammon do differently that lead to such markedly different outcomes in their missionary journeys?
And I think that the text gives us a compelling answer, which I tried to illustrate in the way that I framed the question in the chart above: Alma, unlike Ammon, chose to use pedagogical tools that were completely misaligned with his rhetorical objectives.
Let’s not forget that Alma was starting with a lot of baggage. As the Chief Judge of Zarahemla, he had been responsible for the execution of Nehor, the founder of Ammonihah’s major religion. He was also at least partly responsible for the civil war between Christians and Nehorites that followed. Therefore, he walked into Ammonihah with all of the credibility of Abraham Lincoln walking into Alabama in 1865–or Lilburn Boggs walking into Salt Lake City in 1850. In a situation like this, there is no way to separate the message from the messenger.
Seemingly oblivious to his rhetorical position, though, Alma begins his mission by calling everybody to repentance, and he follows up by preaching sophisticated sermons and then disputing with people in a series of open forums. Shaming, lecturing, and arguing—these are all common strategies that people use when trying to change other people’s minds, even though they rarely even do that (just peruse the comments section of any controversial blog post and you will see what I mean). These strategies pretty much never bring about the “mighty change of heart” that Alma needed to produce in Ammonihah.
Ammon, on the other hand, employed tools that had nothing to do with trying to change anybody’s mind about theological issues. Rather, he concentrated on changing their minds about Nephites. He showed them that he was a good servant—that he could be trusted with difficult problems and that he genuinely cared about the king’s interests. This, it turns out, is about the best way to go about changing someone’s heart. And once a heart changes mightily, intellectual conversion is simply a matter of explaining new facts. It is (as most missionaries learn very quickly) the only way that the discussions actually work.
We can be fairly sure what would have happened if Ammon had gone into the Land of Ishmael with Alma’s bag of tools–calling the Lamanites to repentance, delivering long speeches, and arguing with them in the marketplace: the shortest chapter in the entire Book of Mormon would have ended with the words, “and it came to pass that King Lamoni did squish Ammon like unto a bug.” Only God, however, knows what might have happened if Alma had gone into Ammonihah, preached fewer sermons, and cleaned more stables.
This is definitely worth pondering when we are trying to persuade other people to change their hearts and their minds.
 See Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon pp. 152-179 for a discussion of Mormon’s frequent use of parallel narratives, including pp. 170-174 specifically on the journeys of Alma and those of the Sons of Mosiah.