Evidence #201 | June 7, 2021

Alma’s Political Challenges

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Scripture Central


The political, religious, and legal challenges faced by Alma in the early years of the reign of the judges are subtly realistic.

During the opening years of the reign of the judges, Alma the Younger faced a host of political and religious challenges. In his very first year as chief judge, Alma had to adjudicate a high-profile case of enforcing priestcraft with the sword (Alma 1), and by the 5th year he faced a violent political insurrection (Alma 2–3). Alma spent the remainder of his ministry trying to patch up a fracturing Nephite society as it burst from multiple seams (Alma 5–43).

It is easy to get lost in the details of these stories and never ask why all these challenges were happening in the first place. Although many things likely contributed, a birds-eye perspective suggests that these times of unrest and adversity were facilitated by at least three major factors: (1) the death of powerful leaders, (2) a transition in political government, and (3) increased cultural pluralism. The narrative that results from the confluence of these pressures is subtly authentic.

Death and Departure of Leaders

In the first year of his tenure as chief judge, Alma’s father, who was the founder and high priest of Christ’s church, had died (Mosiah 29:45). King Mosiah died that same year (v. 46). And by that time Mosiah’s sons had already left on their missions to the Lamanites (Mosiah 28:9). As noted by John W. Welch, “Suddenly, the freshman chief judge, himself still a relatively young man (probably in his mid-thirties), found himself without the authoritative support of his father; without the experienced advice of Mosiah, his former regent; and without the active association of his four closest and most influential friends, the four sons of Mosiah.”1

Transition in Government

The Nephites had been ruled by kings for centuries before King Mosiah transformed their government into a system of judges (Mosiah 29). Mormon’s abridgment is initially silent about any opposition to this development, but within only a few years a man named Amlici was gathering followers who wanted to reestablish the monarchy and make him their king (Alma 2:2). This desire for a return to kingship continued among the Nephites for decades, fueling one insurrection after another.2

Amlici, by James Fullmer.

In addition to this mounting political pressure, the new government was also tested on legal and religious grounds. The first of such efforts can be seen in the trial of Nehor.3 “Sensing an opportunity under the equality promised by the new legal regime, and perhaps also seizing a moment of political shakiness as the reign of the judges was in its infancy, Nehor took advantage of the situation.”4 In addition to its status as a vital legal precedent, this trial can be seen as a realistic and nearly immediate response to a recent transition in leadership and government.

Increased Cultural Pluralism

The Nephites were hardly a unified group. The original tribal affiliations, apparently established by Lehi, continued to be important throughout Nephite history.5 So the Nephites were actually comprised of Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, and at some periods Zoramites (Jacob 1:13).6 In addition, during the reign of King Mosiah (Benjamin’s father), the Nephites merged with the Mulekites (Omni 1:12–19). There were also two separate migrations of the people of Zeniff—one led by Limhi (Zeniff’s grandson) and the other by Alma the Elder—both of which ended up in Zarahelma (Mosiah 22–25). Finally, many converted Lamanites began to join the Nephites in response to the preaching of the sons of Mosiah (Alma 27).  

Mosiah and Zarahemla, by James Fullmer.

Mormon never fully explains the inter-factional feuding that was taking place, but we get numerous hints that the growing pluralism among the Nephites was a source of disunity. It is hard not to suspect that some among the Mulekites would have felt jealous or oppressed by foreign Nephite rulers, especially since their roots connected them to Israelite royalty.7 We certainly get a sense that the Zoramites didn’t feel wholly committed or loyal to the Nephites. Not only was there a defection of a major Zoramite settlement (Alma 30, 35), but prominent insurrectionists like Amalickiah and Ammoron proudly cited their Zoramite heritage (Alma 54:23) and repeatedly placed Zoramites at the heads of their armies.8

It is also apparent that not everyone was happy when the Nephites gave converted Lamanites part of their land. Hostile Lamanite groups felt angry and betrayed by their brethren’s defection (Alma 24–25), and the Zoramites became openly antagonistic toward the righteous Lamanites for harboring converted Zoramites (Alma 35). Add to this melting pot any other underlying religious and political factions among the Nephites, such as the Order of the Nehors, and we get a recipe for strife and turmoil.

Zoramites engaged in false worship. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 


When viewing the early years of the reign of the judges in this broader context, the series of trials and challenges faced by Alma can be seen as more than just random, isolated events. Instead, they come across as a series of unfortunate, yet true-to-life, consequences of several key cultural and political developments suggested by the narrative. Alma was a new leader, facing a labyrinth of competing religious and social agendas, in a brand-new form of government. No wonder he was soon tested legally, religiously, and militarily.

The nature of this complex political landscape, however, isn’t ever spelled out in the text. It takes a perceptive reader, one well-versed in political and social patterns, to recognize the connection between Alma’s challenges and the underlying factional strife and political intrigue in the narrative. This subtle cultural realism is not only difficult to detect but would arguably have been even more difficult to fabricate, especially by an author as inexperienced as Joseph Smith.9 

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Alma Face Such Great Political Challenges as the Chief Judge? (Alma 2:1–5),” KnoWhy 563 (May 26, 2020).

 John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008), 211–219.

Alma's Political Challenges
Book of Mormon

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