Changing Hearts and Minds: Why Alma’s Mission Failed while Ammon’s Succeeded #BOM2016

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. [1]

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.


[1] 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.



  1. .


    And, though I hate to say it, this sort of analysis is difficult to pull off in Sunday School when we’re reading verses. Thinking big picture is the only way to see the Book of Mormon the way Mormon saw it.

  2. Great post.

    What’s a “strategiwa”?

  3. jstricklan says:

    I’m loving this series, although they are often quite painful for me because of your persuasive readings of Alma the Younger. It was Alma’s “sophisticated sermons” that converted me — or, perhaps as you are pointing out, provided the intellectual framework for my preexisting conversion — and so it’s hard for me to see some of the bigger problems with his ministry pointed out in stark relief. I’ve usually contrasted Mormon’s depiction of Captain Moroni with his depiction of Alma, but when you point out the contrasts, as here, between Alma and Ammon (who personally drives me nuts along with Nephi, although I’ve always appreciated Ammon’s method) it seems clear that some of the criticisms I’ve long leveled at Moroni’s method apply to Alma as well.

    The process is soul expanding. Thanks.

  4. kyramid says:

    Do you think Zeezrom would have had his heart changed by Ammon’s approach just as it was changed by Alma’s approach? Or what about all the people in 14:1 who began to repent?

    To provide another perspective, I’m someone who can be called to change by harsh words as much as loving words. (And these harsh words aren’t just prophet words . . . I think I have been gradually changed by sarcastic threads on a blog or Facebook if their logic is sound). When Elder Holland talked about “paddy cake and taffy-pull” it caused some serious introspection even though I resisted and rolled my eyes at first.

    On a completely different note, I wonder how the Atonement works to redeem people from sins that they were adequately warned against but not by a messenger who seems as gentle and loving as he should. It can’t be the same sort of accountability that would come if you were gently taught to choose the right your whole life and rejected it then.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    One aspect of the story of Ammon and Lamoni that draws my attention is the interaction of peers. When the junior Lamanite chief met Mosiah’s son, he surely knew it was not a common Nephite before him, and to whom he offered his daughter as wife. For the king’s son missionary, appearing before Lamoni was the most familiar setting he could have found among a foreign people.

    Once I asked a Russian emigré about the use of French in Anna Karenina. She responded, with a hint of bitterness, that the aristocrats of that era spoke French better than Russian. Tolstoy’s father was held in Paris as a prisoner of war during a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers and a similar quantity of civilians. Five decades later, Tolstoy honeymooned in Paris. Preference for speaking French or Russian was a source of tension among Russia’s officers. A Russian aristocrat likely felt more connection with his peers in France than with the peasants of his own country. Alma teaching the poor Zoramites was more out of his element than was Ammon in Lamoni’s court.

  6. Thank you for this analysis, I loved it.

    It seems Alma’s approach simply didn’t align well with the needs of his audience. Would it have worked better to take Ammon’s approach if that approach was inauthentic for Alma, and was therefore perceived as such? That Ammon’s approach worked coming from Ammon does not mean it would have worked coming from Alma, unless it was something Alma could genuinely offer. Alma offered his strengths and abilities, which had inspired many others, and which still inspire many today. It seems Ammonihah would have been better matched with an Ammon, but I’m not sure Alma could have successfully become one.

  7. There’s no need to speculate about what would have happened had Ammon taken Alma’s approach with Lamoni, because it happened to Aaron. Aaron went in with guns blazing as it were, and they immediately threw him and his other brothers in jail. It makes one wonder if Ammon went alone because they had a difference of opinion on which approach to take.

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    Interesting analysis, but it leaves out the concepts from the parable of the sower and thus at best is significantly incomplete, and wild speculation at worst. To assert that similar results would have obtained if a different approach was taken by Alma completely ignores the state of the “ground”.

  9. To second kyramid’s point, there is lots of evidence that contradicts the OP. As kyramid mentioned, Alma 14:1 says that many people began to repent. Hard to call that an abject failure.

    We also have strong evidence that Ammon’s tactic would not have worked among the people of Ammonihah. In Alma 23:14, it says that none of the Nephite dissenters were converted by Ammon and his brethren. Alma 24:28-30 shows further that even after they slaughtered many of the Lamanites, none of the Nephite dissenters (many of whom were after the order of Nehor) were converted still. So if you measure success by the number of people converted who previously belonged to the order of Nehor, Ammon was the abject failure while Alma had tremendous success.

    So the only real conclusion you can draw from this comparison is that different methods work for different people under different circumstances. I guess people are different or something.

  10. I love this exercise, thank you, Michael.

    I’m perplexed, though, by your assertion that “Ammon enters the land of Ishmael as a stranger with no political or ecclesiastical authority”, when Ammon is the son of the Nephite king, Mosiah (and, I infer from how he always heads the list of his brothers, “Ammon, Aaron, Omner, and Himni”, that Ammon is the eldest of these brothers and perhaps Mosiah’s heir). In fact, I’ve argued in the past (and seen it argued by others) that Lamoni’s offering of his daughter for marriage was actually a political move to bind the two families.

  11. Also… I marvel a little that while Alma’s mission to the dissenters was an abject failure, his mission to us has not been. Wrong time, wrong place, right message?

  12. Not a Cougar says:

    So you’re saying apostles make poor full-time proselytizing missionaries? Sounds plausible. Having an apostle as a mission companion would have constantly oscillated between awesome and horrible.

  13. Gilgamesh says:

    The destruction of Fresno would have been a blessing for all.

  14. I’ve been to Fresno… I’m pretty sure it qualifies as destroyed.

  15. Have to disagree w/ your take on Ammon being an unknown to Lamoni, in comparison to Alma being a known quantity at Ammonihah. Ammon is the son of the previous king. Lamoni immediately labels him as the son of a liar (whether making that reference to Mosiah or Nephi way back is hard to delineate), and knows who he is. Lamoni offers his daughter to the Nephite prince likely in a political move to gain a foothold with Nephite foreign policy, uniting the kingdoms politically.

  16. larryco_ says:

    EXCELLENT! I love it when I stumble across ideas that I have never contemplated before. TY.

  17. Michael Austin says:

    OK, so here are some of my thoughts about Ammon and King Lamoni–and the theory that Lamoni knew who he was and offered him his daughter in an attempt to forge an alliance with Mosiah. I acknowledge that this is a possible reading of the text, but I think that the bulk of the evidence–both direct textual evidence from Alma and inference from what we know about the characters and their environment–supports the reading that Lamoni knew only that he was a Nephite. Here is the chain of reasoning that gets me to this conclusion.

    1. Ammon is not, in fact, the son of the Nephite king. He is the son of the former Nephite king. By the time that this narrative occurs, Mosiah has been dead for eight years, Ammon (like all of the other sons of Mosiah) has refused the crown, the monarchy has collapsed, and Alma the Younger has been appointed both the king and the head of the established Church. So there is, in fact, no actual incentive for Lamoni to marry his daughter into Mosiah’s family, which is no longer a political or military force to be reckoned with.

    2. I see no evidence in the text that the Nephite and Lamanite lands had enough interaction with each other to know much about each other’s internal politics. The Nephites appear to have had a politically unified country (despite the two major civil wars that take up about half of Alma), but the Lamanites appear to have been a large collection of tribal chiefdoms rather than anything like a “kingdom.” The fact that Lamoni has a father (who is more powerful than he is), and that his father also has chiefs above him, suggests a loosely affiliated group of tribes of no more than 150-200 people (the Dunbar Number that sets the rough limits of tribal culture). While it is possible that a tribal chief like Lamoni could have thought that marrying into the Nephite royal family would give him an advantage, it is unlikely that he could have recognized a member of that family on sight. He apparently lived far enough away that Ammon had to journey for an extended period of time to get there. It is extremely unlikely that Lamoni had visited Zarahemla at all, much less been privy to the inner workings of the royal family.

    3. It is, therefore, extremely implausible that Lamoni would have had enough familiarity with Nephite politics to identify Ammon on sight, yet not know that the monarchy had ended eight years earlier, removing Ammon from political power. This would take a speial combination of great familiarity and utter ignorance. And, since Ammon came alone, he completely controlled the narrative about himself. So, for Lamoni to know that he was Mosiah’s son, Ammon would have had to have told him. And for Lamoni NOT to know that Mosiah was dead and the Monarchy had been abolished, Ammon would have had to have withheld this information after claiming to be Mosiah’s son. Neither of these actions fits Ammon’s character. He goes out of his way to present himself as a simple servant who just wants to serve the king and teach him about the Great Spirit. It is inconceivable to me that he would have announced himself as a prince and then rejected any advantage that being a prince gave him.

    4. There is no evidence anywhere in the Book of Mormon that marrying for political advantage was even a thing in this culture–especially between the Nephites and the Lamanites. Given the description of the Lamanites in 17:14-15, it is far more likely that they would hold a prominent Nephite hostage and seek ransom (which would also be a good reason for Ammon not to tell anybody who his daddy is). And, any Lamanite who really did understand Nephite politics–and knew that the monarchy had been abandoned in favor of political rule by the head of the state church–would know that the way to form an alliance with the current Nephite regime was not to marry into the family, but to convert to the state Church and seek the protection of Alma the Younger and Nephihah–which, it turns out, is precisely what Lamoni did.

    5. Finally, Lamoni does not offer his daughter in marriage until Ammon says that he intends to live in Ishmael “for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.” It is Ammon’s promise to stay and live among the Lamanites that wins the offer of the King’s daughter, not the prospect of a political alliance, which would normally require that he return to his own country and tell somebody that he was married.

    So, on balance, it makes more sense to me that Ammon entered his Lamanite ministry anonymously, without invoking his former political position, than that he either 1) announced himself as the prince; or 2) was recognized by Lamoni as the son of King Mosiah.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

    PS (to JRS): It is not Lamoni who labels Ammon the “son of a liar.” It is Lamoni’s father, after the conversion story, and it is a plural statement: “thou art going to deliver these Nephites, who are sons of a liar. Behold, he robbed our fathers; and now his children are also come amongst us that they may, by their cunning and their lyings, deceive us.” (Alma 20:14). I think it is very clear that this refers to Nephi and not to Mosiah.

    PPS–Alma 14:1: Yes it is true that Alma does teach some people who begin to repent. These are primarily the marginal members of the society, and, when they convert to Alma’s religion, the people of Ammonihah burn them alive. I suppose that this can be called a kind of success on some level. But, abject materialist that I am, I would consider getting all of your converts burned alive to be indicative of something other than complete success.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael, your lengthy comment was very interesting to me, for this reason: When I taught this lesson in GD, I simply assumed from my reading that Lamoni had no idea who Ammon was (other than being a Nephite). Someone in class mentioned the idea that Lamoni offered his daughter to Ammon because he knew who he was and to cement a political alliance. I had not even thought of such a reading, and agreed that that was a possibility, and we went on with the lesson. But without doing this sort of formal analysis, I think something like your list of reasons must have been rattling around in my head, because until that class member mentioned it it didn’t even occur to me that Ammon may have been a known quantity to Lamonni. So I found your analysis very interesting.

  19. @Michael Austin

    A couple of minor quibbles. By the time Ammon visits Lamoni, it is likely that King Mosiah was still alive or had just barely died. Not sure where you got the 8 years figure. Your other arguments make sense.

    Also, not all or perhaps even a majority of Alma’s converts were burned alive as many were instead kicked out of the city (see Alma 14:7). Also, I’m not sure why their supposed marginality matters. Clearly some of them weren’t (Amulek and Zeezrom). Also, in the end it didn’t matter that some of Ammon’s converts weren’t “marginal” as the majority (the Nephite dissenters and their Lamanite allies) rebelled against the kings that had converted. In other words, even if Alma’s converts hadn’t been “marginal” (which by the way, there isn’t anything in the text that directly supports this), as long as they were in the minority they were in danger of receiving the same treatment due to the bloodthirsty nature of the followers of the Nehor religion.

    So if you want to count “total number of surviving converts” as a measure of success, then Alma is still far from a failure in this case. And by at least one measure (total number of converted Nephite dissidents) he greatly outperforms Ammon.

  20. “But, abject materialist that I am, I would consider getting all of your converts burned alive to be indicative of something other than complete success.” That depends on how you see success I guess. “But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory;” – IMO any missionary who knows this is the result for his converts doesn’t feel like a failure.

    I don’t think the Lord views it as a failure either because He gets what he wants … a just reason to pour His wrath out: ” and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just;.”

  21. pconnornc says:

    I love the analysis and discussion. I always temper my zeal for finding the optimal approach, service, sermon, etc that will stir conversion/repentance with the pragmatic acceptance that agency of individuals always gets the last word ;-) My mission is an example of how this works for the positive – in spite of my un-optimized efforts, it seems people still used their agency to come closer to Christ!

  22. Honest question here (although probably OffTopic)…

    Jax said, “I don’t think the Lord views it as a failure either because He gets what he wants … a just reason to pour His wrath out: ” and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just;.””

    This idea that God is looking for reasons to get to pour out His wrath and punish a group of people doesn’t sit right for me. But since it is scriptural, are there any arguments that show this not to be true today? Is God just waiting for an opportunity to destroy a group of people now?

  23. ReT, My thought is that it’s not a matter of God looking for reasons to pour out his wrath. Instead, I think it’s a matter of allowing the conduct to be completed, so that the full measure of justice deserved would be fully warranted. If Alma & Amulek stopped the conduct, those intending to carry it out would be saved from the full measure of justice because the conduct was never carried to completion. They could be judged for intending to burn believers or attempting to burn believers, but that is less than intending to do it AND actually doing it. If no one dies, then no murder took place, no matter what the intentions.

  24. ReT… I also wouldn’t say He is “looking for reasons” He has reasons to punish all of us beyond what He does. But you ask, “Is God just waiting for an opportunity to destroy a group of people now?” I don’t know, but I’d think this is true. He’s said that in the last days He WILL pour out His wrath when we’ve reached are “ripened with iniquity.” So as I look around I would think He is waiting for the opportunity to destroy us. I think “the opportunity” here means that He is waiting for us to prove we are ripened.

    Also slightly off topic but related to Ammon and this idea of God being okay with death to bad people… We use Ammon as an exemplary missionary all the time. And he was. But I think he also understood perfectly well that God did not/does not have “unconditional love” for everyone and is just fine with their mortal deaths.

    When Ammon sees his fellow-servants scared because their flocks were scattered Ammon rejoiced saying that he knew he could now use the power of God to help them believe his words. And HOW did you use that power of God? To kill the men scattering the flocks without so much as a word or warning. He told the other servants, “Encircle the flocks round about that they flee not; and I go and contend with these men who do scatter our flocks.” He went to pick a fight! “I go and contend” He didn’t try to preach or negotiate. He didn’t try to lure them away. “But Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them” No warning. No “hey you need to repent!” No, “hey you better flee.” Being confident of the power of God within him he picked a fight and started killing evil men, doing it in the name of God, and rejoicing in the power he could show forth to his fellow servants so that they would believe the preaching that would come. He didn’t ask for permission for the king, he didn’t turn to police/guards, he asked alone and with purpose.

    Ammon’s missionary teaching and success is great. He deserves the praise he is given. But often overlooked, and almost never discussed, if the fact that his teaching was received and his success due to the fact that he, acting as a ‘vigilante’, ambushed and killed men guilty of far less than we see happening today across the nation and globe.

    So if you were to ask me why Alma failed and Ammon succeeded (maybe this wasn’t off topic after all), that would be my answer; that Ammon was able to “show off” the power of God but Alma restrained from doing so.

  25. The people of Ammonihah were fierce apostates and that makes all the difference.

  26. Thanks for the responses. I find myself oddly deflated by them. I guess, I just want God to be better than this. Or perhaps, the God I know is better than this.

  27. Michael Austin says:

    I think that God gets a lot of blame for stuff that He really doesn’t have much to do with. We humans are hard wired to find causes for every observable effect, but we are spectacularly bad at cause-and-effect reasoning. So we treat God as the final cause for anything we don’t understand. And there are enough examples of this happening in the scriptures–which were written by human beings who were both inspired and flawed, just like the rest of us–that we should not be surprised to see Mormon oversubscribing the results of war and natural disaster to God. If it is between blaming ancient prophets for thinking like pretty much every ancient person thought or blaming God for being violent and petty, then I tend to blame the ancient prophets. It is much harder than we realize to think too far out of the restraints that culture and language place on our cognition.

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