Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Immersion of Alma

After writing about Ammon's LACK of priesthood authority, as recorded in Mosiah, it only seems fitting that I address Alma's apparent SURFEIT of priesthood authority; after reading our last entry, the lovely Miss Jan asks, "Why was Alma able to baptize after fleeing from King Noah?" So glad you asked, Jan . . .

Mormon's description of Alma's baptism in the waters of Mormon has provoked a lot of thought in me throughout the years, and while I'm not sure that I have THE answer, I certainly have come up with a lot of answers to explain the (apparently) unorthodox events of this passage:

12. And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.
13. And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body: and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.
14. And after Alma had said these words, both Alma and Helam were buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit.

There seem to be at least two major questions that this account invites. 1) Where does Alma get his authority from? 2) Why is he submerged and "baptized" at the same time as Helam?

EXPLANATION #1:

The easiest way to answer these two questions is to suggest that Alma needed no prior priesthood authority to baptize and that it wasn't his choice or intent to baptize himself--that the "Spirit of the Lord" both authorized and acted upon him. This explanation relies almost entirely on the account of Adam's baptism given in the book of Moses. As the first man on earth, Adam could not 1) receive the priesthood by laying on of hands unless an exalted being (and since there were no "resurrected personages" [D&C 129:1], Heavenly Father is our only option here) ordained him, and therefore he could not 2) baptize his family or be baptized. The sixth chapter of Moses explains how the Lord circumvented both of these difficulties:

64. And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water.
65. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man.
66. And he heard a voice out of heaven, saying: Thou art baptized with fire, and with the Holy Ghost. This is the record of the Father, and the Son, from henceforth and forever;
67. And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity.

Adam is both baptized and ordained to priesthood authority by the same "Spirit of the Lord" that was present during Alma's immersion; after he "was laid under the water," he became a member of "the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years"--someone who holds "the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God" (D&C 107:3). While Alma's circumstances are not nearly so constrained as those of Adam (Couldn't a translated Moses/Elijah have appeared to ordain him?), it seems at least possible that the precedent of Adam's baptism and ordination by the Spirit applies here. After all--when Mormon records that "Alma and Helam were buried in the water," he makes it sound very much as though they had no agency in the matter, as though some other force or agent did the burying (not wholly unlike 3 Nephi 19:11, where "Nephi went down into the water and was baptized" by a personage or force unknown--and then began to baptize others).

EXPLANATION #2

For those who are unhappy with the idea that Alma derived so much authority in such an unorthodox manner, there is another, relatively simple explanation. During this period in the Book of Mormon, as at other times, the Nephite king (Benjamin and then Mosiah) was also the highest priesthood authority in the land; he was the prophet. As the head of all civic and religious affairs, the king presumably authorized the original expedition of Zeniff; he certainly authorized the journey made by Ammon to find "the people who went up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi" (Mosiah 7:1).

If we assume that the prophet/king Benjamin authorized Zeniff's expedition, then he surely would have made sure that there was adequate priesthood leadership along--and Zeniff, whose pleading on behalf of "that which was good among [the Lamanites]" prevented their massacre, would seem an ideal candidate as priesthood leader (Mosiah 9:1). He certainly seems to have acted as a priesthood leader, as he led his people to "cry mightily to the Lord that he would deliver us out of the hands of our enemies" (9:17) and to depend upon "the strength of the Lord to battle" (10:10). So if we assume that Zeniff held the priesthood (and he consecrated priests, whether he held the priesthood or not--11:5), then we can almost certainly assume that he conferred it on the son who he appointed to take his place as a prophet king: Noah. Noah, in turn, "consecrated new [priests]," one of whom was Alma.

Thus Alma--like Zacharias or John the Baptist in the New Testament--would have been legitimately ordained by one who held authority, even though the general administration of priesthood authority was corrupt. In this scenario, Alma already held the requisite authority to act--he simply needed to access the power of the priesthood by repenting and sanctifying himself. In this respect, President Packer suggested last April, the people of King Noah had something in common with us: "We [like King Noah] have done very well at distributing the authority of the priesthood. We have priesthood authority planted nearly everywhere. We have quorums of elders and high priests worldwide. But distributing the authority of the priesthood has raced, I think, ahead of distributing the power of the priesthood." So if Alma had the priesthood, then his self-immersion might simply be understood as a re-commitment to his earlier, baptismal covenants (and re-baptism was not all that uncommon a practice in the early restored church--plenty of analogous examples).

So--take your pick. I think in either explanation there is ample evidence that Alma acted with ample authority when was immersed with Helam and baptized in the waters of Mormon.