Alma the (Calvinist?) Younger

Most members of the church are quite familiar with the conversion story of Alma the Younger as found in Alma chapter 36 of the Book of Mormon.  It is a beautiful conversion story which provides a great example of a few steps of the repentance process.  It may also be a favorite story for many parents who have a wayward child that they hope will someday return to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that this story, as written, could also be read as an example of Calvinist beliefs in action.  To illustrate this I would like to highlight what I see as key points of this conversion story:

– Alma the younger is a vile sinner, who is hanging out with his vile friends, who are minding their vile business.

– An angel comes along and tells them to knock it off.

– Alma is so shocked by this that he falls to the earth as if he were dead for a few days.

– While he is out, he experiences great guilt for his sins.

– He then remembers the teachings of his father, and calls out to God for mercy.

– He feels great joy.

– He comes around and lives a life of righteous service.

– He is now on his way to eternal life.

I see much of this, as presented, as being somewhat Calvinist in its nature.  Alma is a vile sinner who apparently shows no merit from himself for having such a conversion.  We learn in another place that his father had been praying for him, but we are not told of any ‘worthiness’ from Alma the younger.  Alma the younger is presented as someone who appears to be totally depraved.

God sends an angel to Alma the younger.  Why him?  Why not somebody else?  Do not other parents pray for their children without angels coming around?  It looks like God has chosen Alma the younger as someone to save for his own reasons.  This looks like an unconditional election.

Alma the younger does not seem to have all that much choice in the matter.  He can either continue to suffer the pains of a damned soul, or plead for mercy.  Some choice.  This could be a type of irresistible grace.

Alma the younger confidently declares that he knows he will join God in glory.  This sounds like the perseverance of a saint.

So this story appears to present four of the five tenants of Calvinism.  This disturbs me because I dismiss Calvinism as a set of false doctrines, and I view Mormonism, in part, as a rejection of, or at least alternative to, Calvinism.  It makes me feel uneasy.  So what am I to make of this Alma the younger story?  Here are my current thoughts:

– We are not getting the full story.  This is a short chapter.  Perhaps there was much more to the repentance and reformation of Alma the younger than we are getting.  This entire chapter is a chiasmus.  Perhaps this story is more religious poetry than detailed doctrine.

– The most important point of a chiasmus is generally the ‘peak’, and this one is no exception.  The peak of this story is Alma calling out for mercy from God.  This is the source for a remission of sins.   But we should not forget about the foundation of this chiasmus.  What Alma the younger tells his son Helaman in the first and last verse of this chapter is to obey the commandments.  That is the direct instruction Alma gives to his son.  That appears to be the action Alma wants him to take as a result of this story.  Helaman is not to hang around and hope for a miraculous heart change lottery, but to obey the commandments.  Alma seems to want his son to avoid this type of experience.  I believe this is also an important part, and is what makes this story more complete, and more Mormon.

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9 Responses to “Alma the (Calvinist?) Younger”


  1. 1 J. Stapley January 1, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    I read it differently and as such it defies Calvinism. First Calvinism asserts that the days of miracles (and angles) are ceased. Second, the story is fairly clear that the Angle came as a result of Alma’s father’s prayers. Prayers that result in angels are not very calvanistic. The Book of Mormon is quite explicit on the matter of repentance and immediate forgiveness (see Mosiah’s people).

  2. 2 ed42 January 1, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    What bothers me tremendously about this story (and you mentioned it briefly) was the issue of agency. I don’t know if the following is quite doctrine (but I suspect that it is close): God would cease to be God if he violates our agency???

    Of course this also happened to Saul/Paul, but it still doesn’t seem “right”. Doesn’t the appearance of an Angel destroy faith? Is not faith required?

    Nice post.

  3. 3 clarkgoble January 2, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Alma the younger does not seem to have all that much choice in the matter. He can either continue to suffer the pains of a damned soul, or plead for mercy. Some choice. This could be a type of irresistible grace.

    Except that narratively there is that past context of Laman and Lemuel who had a similar experience and didn’t exactly change…

    Plus the text talks a lot about freedom. (Not Alma 36 but other places) So it’s hard to take it too Calvinistically. There are parallels to Calvinism of course. But lurking in the background is the remarkably similar account of Paul’s conversion which probably affected Calvin. (I don’t know the history of how he arrived at his ideas – so I can’t say there)

  4. 4 Geoff J January 2, 2008 at 2:51 am

    Eric,

    First the good: I think you ask a very good question with the “why him” paragraph.

    Now the rest: I think your attempt to connect the story with the TULIP of Calvinism falls on its face.

    T (Total Depravity) — I see nothing in story that indicates that Alma and all people (including newborns) are totally depraved. Just because one can become depraved through free choices does not at all indicate all people are totally depraved as the Calvinists insist.

    U (Unconditional Election) — First, there was a clearly stated condition leading up to the angelic visit: The prayers of others. Second, the Calvinists refer to people being saved by the unconditional election of God so the connection you hoped to make isn’t even there. There is no indication that Alma was unconditionally saved as a result of the one angelic visit.

    L (Limited Atonement)– No connection here.

    I (Irresistable Grace) — There is nothing in the story that indicates the Alma had no choice in his mighty change of heart. In fact, as Clark noted, the overall narrative of the Book of Mormon clearly indicates that one can receive an angelic visit and freely choose not to be converted anyway (see Laman and Lemuel).

    P (Perserverance of the saints) — There is no indication in the life of Alma that supports this “Once saved always saved” doctrine. In fact Alma explicitly preaches against it to his sons later.

    So basically, nope I don’t think there is any indication of Calvinism in this story.

  5. 5 Eric Nielson January 2, 2008 at 8:26 am

    All:

    Thanks for your comments. For one level of explanation, I was taking the conversion story on its own. I am aware that the bulk of the Book of Mormon is very unCalinist.

    J:

    Excellent point about prayer, although the prayer of his father is outside of Alma 36. But it is there. I am still not sure we get the full story of repentance and forgiveness in either example.

    ed42:

    I’m with you here. I can not help but think there is more to these stories than we are getting. I want to believe that Paul and Alma the younger brought more to the table than we are told.

    Clark:

    The link between Paul and Alma the Younger is unmistakeable. You bring up a good point about Laman and Lemuel. Perhaps there is more choice and effort after the fact than we are getting.

    GeoffJ:

    A compliment from you nearly makes me fall to the earth as if I were dead.

    There is a hint of Total depravity in the text of this story. Verse 5 states “New, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things; but God has, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me, not of any worthiness of myself;” This gives the impression that there was no merit on Alma the Youngers part in his conversion. I do not buy this, but the impression is there. I am not saying that the text says that all are depraved, just that it gives the impression that Alma the younger was.

    Verse 28 states the “And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory;…” So this does give the impression that his exaltation is assured because of this experience. I do not buy this, and this is not the message of the Book of Mormon as a whole, but the text does give that impression. Anyway, the ‘why Alma the younger’ question (which I thought you said was good) fits in this election category.

    I agree that the irresistable grace portion is counter to the overall Book of Mormon narrative, and that the Laman and Lemuel example is a good one. But if we stick to the conversion story itself it does give that impression. The story badically says either suffer the pains of a damned soul or plead for mercy. So there is some choice, but not much of one.

    Again I point to verse 28 as an implication of a once saved always saved statement. The Book of Mormon as a whole contradicts such a statement, but the statement is right there in the text.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson January 2, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    J:

    While Clavinism might say the day of angels visiting is gone, this experience is prior to the birth of Christ. Would a Calvinist find this significant? It is still a good point you bring up.

    As far as Mosiahs people, are you referring to Mosiah 5 and the reaction of the people to the speach? If so, were these people not basically good people who were seeking to get closer to God? Instead of vile sinners who were apparently seeking only to destroy the church of God? If this is the example you are citing, I’m not sure it is a good one.

  7. 7 LDS Anarchist January 3, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Alma = Calvin. C-Al[ma]-vin. calviN, alMa (N is the letter after M)! Vin=Vinous=Wine=Spirit. Alma=Soul (in Spanish). Spirit=Soul! Al-Ma=2 syllables. Cal-Vin= 2 syllables! A[lma]-B[ecomes]-C[alvin]=ABC! Amla (Alma spelled backwards)=Nivlac (Calvin spelled backwards.) Am-[Niv]-la[c]. Amnivlac spelled forward is Calvinma, the mother of Calvin. The FATHER of Alma prayed for Alma! The correlations between the two are too great for dispute. Alma WAS a Calvanist!

  8. 8 Sean January 7, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    I (Irresistable Grace) — There is nothing in the story that indicates the Alma had no choice in his mighty change of heart. In fact, as Clark noted, the overall narrative of the Book of Mormon clearly indicates that one can receive an angelic visit and freely choose not to be converted anyway (see Laman and Lemuel)

    I agree.

    I also believe that Alma’s choice was PRIOR to his reacting the way he did, falling to the earth, racked with torment, etc. etc. His real choice was to either heed the message of the angel or not to heed. Lamen and Lemuel gave a sort of lip service to the message of their angelic visitor. But they did not heed it… not by a long shot. Alma, on the other hand made a choice to really take the message to heart. This is what caused his torment. Not the words that landed in his ears, but the witness that penetrated his hard-thick heart shield.

  9. 9 Eric Nielson January 7, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Excellent point Sean. This would show merit and choice. So I agree with you. Is this point made explicitly in the text? I’ll have to read it again and see.


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