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1 And it came to pass that they did go forth, and began to preach the word of God unto the people, entering into their synagogues, and into their houses; yea, and even they did preach the word in their streets.
2 And it came to pass that after much labor among them, they began to have success among the poor class of people; for behold, they were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel—
3 Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to things of the world; and also they were poor in heart.
Alma and his companions begin to have some success, but not among those who were the adamant adherents to the Zoramite religion. They did not touch the hearts of those who used the synagogues as places to display their wealth, but rather they touched those among the poor, those who “were not permitted to enter into their synagogues.” Not only were the poor deemed lesser than those with displayable wealth, but they were “esteemed as filthiness.” The sad end result of social elitism can be the labeling of those who do not fit as “something or other”; they are labeled as “something less.” In this case, they were “esteemed as filthiness.” In many similar situations, they are considered less than human.
The problem is not really wealth, but the separation into different types of people, where some consider themselves so much better than others that the others can be routinely ignored, or even worse, oppressed. However, it is also among such people that their hearts might be more susceptible to God’s words. When verse 3 says that the poor were “poor in heart,” it refers to their lack of pride and, therefore, the lack of that great obstacle to repentance.
4 Now, as Alma was teaching and speaking unto the people upon the hill Onidah, there came a great multitude unto him, who were those of whom we have been speaking, of whom were poor in heart, because of their poverty as to the things of the world.
5 And they came unto Alma; and the one who was the foremost among them said unto him: Behold, what shall these my brethren do, for they are despised of all men because of their poverty, yea, and more especially by our priests; for they have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands; and they have cast us out because of our exceeding poverty; and we have no place to worship our God; and behold, what shall we do?
6 And now when Alma heard this, he turned him about, his face immediately towards him, and he beheld with great joy; for he beheld that their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word.
Mormon sets the stage for Alma’s sermon on faith by introducing the vast difference between the Zoramites in their synagogues and those who they would not allow in the synagogues. Mormon doesn’t give us much information about the people to whom he was preaching on the hill Onidah, save that there came to him a contingent of those poor that Mormon had mentioned who were poor in heart due to their circumstances.
Their chosen spokesperson approaches Alma and explains both their problem and their desire. The problem is not the lack of wealth. They probably thought that wealth was impossible for them. What they desired was not money or prestige, but communion with their God. They were excluded from the synagogues and therefore had “no place to worship our God.”
Alma recognized that this was a teachable people. Therefore, he taught them.
7 Therefore he did say no more to the other multitude; but he stretched forth his hand, and cried unto those whom he beheld, who were truly penitent, and said unto them:
8 I behold that ye are lowly in heart; and if so, blessed are ye.
9 Behold thy brother hath said, What shall we do?—for we are cast out of our synagogues, that we cannot worship our God.
10 Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?
11 And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?
Alma “stretched forth his hand.” Mormon didn’t feel he needed to explain what that meant, although it would be helpful for the modern reader. Perhaps it was a gesture of formal discourse, such as was found in many Old World cultures. The orator had specific gestures that would add particular meaning to his words. In this case, it is possible that the gesture was intended either to include this group of poor in heart, or possibly as a representation of one who could speak with authority. That Mormon includes the gesture suggests that it had meaning, but we do not have enough information to know what that meaning was.
The Zoramite synagogues were used once a week for their worship service, and there was no worship outside the synagogue (Alma 31:23 notes that they did not speak of God on the other days). Thus, one of the problems these poor had was the assumption that they were barred from worshipping God. It is for that reason that Alma asks “do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?”
That question is significant because it suggests that devotion to God does not require a particular sacred space. Any place can be made at least temporarily sacred if we use it to worship. Similarly, it does not matter the day. Although Christian tradition worships on Sunday, there are countries where the prevailing religion or practices make it more appropriate for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to worship on a day other than Sunday. The worship is much more important than the day on which it takes place.
12 I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.
13 And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.
14 And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word?
15 Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed—yea, much more blessed than they who are compelled to be humble because of their exceeding poverty.
Alma declares that good has come from being cast out of the synagogues. It has allowed them to be humble. While it is true that their circumstances in life were humble, Alma’s message is more than being humble, because they were poor. The fact that they were cast out of the synagogues places them in diametric opposition to those who attended the synagogues, to those whose costly apparel and actions loudly proclaimed that they were proud, not humble.
Alma is setting up a dichotomy. There are those who worship in the Zoramite synagogues in the Zoramite way, and there are those who are truly humble, and whose humility not only has them cast out of those synagogues, but which truly do not belong in a synagogue dedicated to pride rather than Godly humility.
This is good, because they have had to learn that they are humble, as opposed to prideful, and that humility “seeketh repentance.” When Alma says that they are blessed because they were compelled to be humble, he is referencing their expulsion from the synagogues. When he says that “they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word,” he is telling them that they can receive even more blessings by listening to the word that Alma will declare to them.
We should not read this contrast between being compelled to be humble and willingly humbling ourselves as an either/or condition. In the way Alma is using it, it is a progression. They were compelled to be humble and, in that humility, are willing to repent and accept more of the Lord’s word.
16 Therefore, blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble; or rather, in other words, blessed is he that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe.
17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.
18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.
19 And now, how much more cursed is he that knoweth the will of God and doeth it not, than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into transgression?
20 Now of this thing ye must judge. Behold, I say unto you, that it is on the one hand even as it is on the other; and it shall be unto every man according to his work.
Alma uses the dichotomy between being humble and being compelled to be humble to begin his explanation of faith. Those who are humble are able to accept God’s word “without stubbornness of heart.” Those who are required to be humble may be among those who ask for a sign, or other proof before they will believe.
In verse 18, Alma begins to define faith. The first element in understanding faith is understanding what it is not. It is not knowing a thing of surety: “for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.” This puts faith and knowledge on two different and opposed positions. Nevertheless, there is a relationship between faith and knowledge, and that will be part of Alma’s continued explanation.
One of the differences is that humankind is “more cursed [if we know] the will of God and [do] it not.” While Alma suggests that there is a greater punishment if we know and do not do, as opposed to believing and not doing, that will not put faith in the lesser position that it might appear to be. Faith is not knowledge. Although there are important similarities, there are also important differences, as Alma will elaborate in this discourse.
21 And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.
The similarities and differences between faith and knowledge are repeated themes throughout Alma’s sermon. Alma never said that knowledge was bad, only that it differed from faith. In this case, he defines faith as a “hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” Those words reflect Romans 8:24: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?” As with many other times where the language of the Book of Mormon reflects language or phrases from the New Testament, the similarity of words is dependent upon the translator. In this case, Joseph used familiar King James Version words for a similar thought in the text he was translating.
The same underlying Greek text was translated in the Revised English Bible as: “It was with this hope that we were saved. Now to see something is no longer to hope: why hope for what is already seen?” While the meaning is transmitted in both renditions, the Book of Mormon clearly uses the KJV vocabulary to translate that meaning.
What does it mean, then? Alma is explaining that both knowledge and faith are principles upon which we may act. If we know something, we can, and will, act upon it. If we see a physical chair, we assume we can sit in it. If we know simple arithmetic, we exchange money for goods and expect correct change if we present more than is needed. Those are things that we can know.
However, there are things that we cannot know, that we cannot see. When we perform our devotions to God, we hope and have faith in their effectiveness, but cannot act upon knowledge. We don’t have it. What we have is the ability to act when we otherwise would not. In the secular realm, we prefer to act upon knowledge. In the spiritual realm we require a firm foundation to our actions, but it must be something other than knowledge. That is the realm of faith.
22 And now, behold, I say unto you, and I would that ye should remember, that God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word.
23 And now, he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned.
24 And now, my beloved brethren, as ye have desired to know of me what ye shall do because ye are afflicted and cast out—now I do not desire that ye should suppose that I mean to judge you only according to that which is true—
25 For I do not mean that ye all of you have been compelled to humble yourselves; for I verily believe that there are some among you who would humble themselves, let them be in whatsoever circumstances they might.
26 Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
Verses 21 And 26 both declare that faith is not to have a perfect knowledge. That repetition might signal repetitive resumption. However, in repetitive resumption, the intervening material is inserted. In this case, it is not necessarily inserted, but is another approach to the same information. This is a repetition, but more a duplication for emphasis, rather than a repetitive resumption.
The emphasis is on the condition of the poor who have come to Alma. Alma has already noted that they are to be blessed for their humility, even though they were required to be humble. In this repetition, Alma comes to the important part of their humility. They desire to know what they can do. They don’t desire to know; they don’t desire to understand; they desire to do. Alma praises them for that desire, and notes that there are those who would have been sufficiently humble to come to that condition before the Lord, even if they had not been compelled to it by their separation for what they thought were their only forms of worship.
This is the reason for emphasizing that faith is not a perfect knowledge. They are willing to act without knowing exactly what to act upon. They have a faith that is motivating them to improve, and to desire to know what to do. They admit that they do not know.
27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
If faith allows action where knowledge cannot exist, how does one even begin? How can you have faith in anything for which you have no evidence, no way of seeing whether to use that as a basis of action or not?
Alma suggests that it is simple. One simply exercises “a particle of faith.” One does not begin with a firm faith in everything. At the very beginning, one must at least desire to believe. Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of this lowest form of belief is the Lamanite overking’s prayer: “O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day” (Alma 22:18).
The Lamanite king doesn’t know that there is a God. He knows only that Aaron has said that there is a God. In the prayer, he starts at what must be the barest beginnings of belief: “if there is a God, and if thou art God. . . .” What makes this tentative prayer effective is the willingness to act on that beginning faith: “I will give away all my sins to know thee.”
That is how faith begins. It begins with a small beginning and moves to greater and greater faith. While Lamoni’s father’s experience had an exceptionally rapid confirmation, for most of us it is a slower and more gentle process, as Alma explains in the next verses.
28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.
31 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.
32 Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.
Although Alma doesn’t mention it, it is certain that these poor, who are not allowed into the synagogues, were farmers. These were people of the land who understood the process of growing things. Therefore, Alma teaches them with an analogy to which they would easily relate: “We will compare the word unto a seed.”
The beginning of faith was to give place to God’s word. The seed must be planted. A seed kept and stored away may never germinate. Therefore, the beginning action of faith is to plant the seed, to plant God’s word, in one’s soul.
If the seed is good, and the person is good, then the seed begins to grow. Farmers understand that the fact that the seed begins to grow is not the same as the plant bearing fruit. There is a long way from the first stem and leaves pushing through the soil and the mature grain or fruit available to nourish others. Farmers understand patience and continued effort.
How can one know if the hope expressed in giving place to God’s word is true? If it is good, it will grow. If it is not, it will not grow and will be discarded. The proof is in the result. This is the same imagery as in Matthew 7:20: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
33 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
34 And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
A perfect knowledge understands all things, and may be the exclusive domain of the Godhead. However, humanity can know of some things. When our experiment bears fruit, we can know that it has arrived at that point off knowledge. Then faith becomes dormant because we can act on the faith that we have.
As an example, a parent may put training wheels on a child’s bicycle. At some point, the parent knows that the child is ready to have them removed, but the child does not know that. They know that they can ride with training wheels. Why are they willing to try? They hope, or have faith, in their parents. They trust them enough to take an action that they do not know they can do. At some point after the removal of the training wheels, the child rides the bicycle. There is no more hope or faith involved, for the child knows he or she can ride the bicycle. It is that way as we progress through faith. Or faith is the engine that allows us to progress and become better than we are. Knowledge allows us to operate in the world that we understand, but it doesn’t alter that world as faith can.
35 O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?
36 Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.
37 And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.
Returning to the agricultural analogy, Alma speaks of the process of growing the plant representing one’s faith. One can learn that the experiment on the word, or the planting of the seed, was good. Alma uses the image of light, which farmers will easily understand as an essential part of the growing process. Light is good. Growing is good. It is still not a perfect knowledge. It may be, as he noted in verses 33 and 34, a partial knowledge, but it is not a perfect knowledge.
Thus, one must continue to nourish the plant. In verse 37, the plant is expressly a tree. The imagery is paralleled by the Savior’s parable of the sower (see Matt. 13:1–23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15), where the seed falls on different soils and therefore has different results. In Alma’s case, the imagery isn’t to the soil, but to the care of the sapling. That the plant is a tree may invoke the necessity of continuous care for a long period of time. Trees take longer to mature than grain plants.
There are commonalities in the symbolism of Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life and this tree of faith. Both require care, and in both cases, a good beginning can be destroyed when one ceases to care for the tree, or partake of its fruit. The fruit of the tree of life is explicitly mentioned in verse 40.
38 But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.
39 Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.
40 And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.
Verse 40 suggests that Alma did intend for his listeners to recall Lehi’s Tree of Life dream. His discussion of faith is the process of walking the narrow path without the imagery of the iron rod. It is assumed that the word of God is available, and that it remains to the individual to grasp it. That is the aspect that Alma is describing. He doesn’t dwell on the presence of the rod as the word of God, but rather on the process by which one might grab hold of it and recognize that it will lead to the divine fruit of the Tree of Life.
41 But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
42 And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
43 Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.
The patience and care of the farmer will nourish their Tree of Life. They will know it is good as it grows and swells within them. They will “[look] forward to the fruit thereof.” The result of the long process of nourishing faith, or the tree, will yield “a tree springing up unto everlasting life.”
There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition. Alma’s sermon continues in the next chapter.
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