Reevaluating Alma 13: Premortal Performance or Foreknowledge of God?
Alma 13 is commonly used as support for the premortal existence. In particular, it is sometimes used to support the notion that circumstances today are the result of actions taken in the premortal existence. However, a careful reading of the Book of Mormon narrative including the purposes and structure of Alma’s discourse, and an examination of early Latter-day Saint understanding of the Book of Mormon compel us to reconsider and reevaluate this particular reading.
The Nephite socio-religious context
Readers of the Book of Mormon are generally aware that the narrative describes two warring clans, the Nephites and the Lamanites. While this is a useful frame of reference, the group dynamics are much more complex. In particular, the Nephites often faced individuals who defected from the Nephite polity and who openly challenged the Nephite religion. Understanding these dynamics is a key to an enhanced understanding of the text.
The Book of Alma opens with the Nephite confrontation with Nehor, the founder of an competing priesthood who taught that “every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people” (Alma 1:3). Nehor’s teachings were in opposition to the Nephite priesthood where “when the priest had imparted unto them the word of God they all returned again diligently unto their labors; and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.” (Alma 1:26). While Nehor was ultimately put to death for the crime of murder under Nephite law, many Nephites defected and became part of the Order of Nehor.
After a civil war with the Nehorian faction that nearly brought down the Nephite government, Alma, the high priest and chief judge of the Nephites who had ordered the death of Nehor, steps down from his position as chief judge to engage in a mission to cleanse the church and reclaim Nephite defectors. While Alma has success in Zarahemla, the main Nephite city, he is not so fortunate when he arrives in Ammonihah, a city far removed geographically, politically, and perhaps ethnically, from the Nephite polity, and which has become an enclave for the Nehorian priestcraft. Without the protection of his secular position as chief judge, he is reviled and cast out of the city. However, he finds Amulek, an Ammoniah social elite who identifies himself as “Nephite,” accepts Alma as a prophet, sacrifices his social standing, and joins Alma in seeking to reclaim the people of the city.
Alma’s religious discourse
Alma and Amulek, speaking to the lawyers, judges, and rulers of Ammonihah who are of the Order of Nehor, preach concerning judgment, eternal life, and resurrection of man. When one ruler begins to question Alma concerning the creation account, Alma backs up and starts from the beginning, from the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve, from the time the Lord gave them “first commandments.” (Alma 12:31). Alma preaches that after the fall, God sends angels unto man, and makes known the plan of redemption “according to their faith and repentance and their holy works.” (Alma 12:30). His goal is to reclaim his Nephite kinsman, and call them to repentance, just as God commanded men to repent after the fall, thus re-enacting the scriptural narrative. However, in his last discourse Alma knows he must speak out against the Nehorian priesthood, which has been the cause of much bloodshed and wickedness.
In chapter 13, Alma continues from the fall of man and teaches “when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children” (i.e. after the fall), the Lord God “ordained priests after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.” (Alma 13:1). By doing this he challenges the priesthood after the Order of Nehor. Most critically, Alma teaches that priests were ordained “in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption.” (Alma 13:2). What manner could possibly do this? The rest of his discourse is to explain “this manner.” This is the crux of Alma 13. Alma seeks to answer the question of why some are called to the holy calling of the priesthood and why others are not. (Alma 13:4).
According to the foreknowledge of God
Alma explains that priests were ordained “on account of their exceeding faith and repentance, and their righteousness before God, they choosing to repent and work righteousness rather than to perish.” (Alma 13:10). Alma hearkens back to the principle of equality, that all were “on the same standing with their brethren” but that the holy calling was “prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would [future tense] not harden their hearts.” (Alma 13:5).
Thus, from the Alma’s previous discourse on the fall of man, it is clear that he is referring to faith and repentance and holy works in this life as the determination for being called to the holy calling. Alma twice invokes God’s “foreknowledge of all things.” (Alma 13: 3, 7) —both times in relation to what has been “prepared from the foundation of the world.” This is the only time in the Book of Mormon that these terms are used. It would seem Alma would not invoke the foreknowledge of God unless he is refering to a future state, since foreknowledge, by definition, refers to knowledge of something before it happens. (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines foreknowledge as “Knowledge of a thing before it happens; prescience. If I foreknew, foreknowledge had no influence on their fault” (emphasis added)).
Another reason it seems like a strained reading of the text to assume that the “faith and repentance” occurred in a premortal realm is because nowhere does Alma teach a doctrine of premortal repentance. This repenting can only be understood to happen in mortality especially since Alma just finished teaching that “this life” is a “space granted unto man in which he might repent” and “a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). Indeed, the whole thrust of his purpose is to call the Ammonihah city to repentance.
Rather, the prophet Alma draws a parallel between the high priesthood and the Son of God. The holy order of the Son is “from the foundation of the world; or in other words, being without beginning of days or end of years, being prepared from eternity to all eternity, according to his foreknowledge of all things” (Alma 13:7). This is appropriate, Alma explains, because the Son of God, “the Only Begotten of the Father . . . is without beginning of days or end of years.” (Alma 13:9). Indeed, the atonement of the Only Begotten, the plan of redemption, was “prepared from the foundation of the world.” (Alma 12:30;13:5).
Alma invokes Melchizedek (which means king of righteousness), and teaches Melchizedek was a high priest after the same order who preached repentance and established peace in the land (Alma 13:18). Alma teaches that one of the purposes of the holy calling is to “teach [God’s] commandments unto the children of men, that they also might enter into his rest.” (Alma 13:6). Alma paints not only Melchizedek as fulfilling this role, but also points to himself when he exhorts the people to repent so that they may enter into the rest of the Lord, thus again re-enacting the larger narrative and serving as a proof of his priesthood calling. (Alma 13: 6, 12-13, 16, 29).
In this way, the holy order becomes a type of the Son of God. Both are without beginning of days or end of years, both are prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, both urge men to repent, and both lead to redemption.
Early Latter-day Saint readings of Alma 13
In his recent work on the history of preexistence in Western thought, Terryl Givens notes “Some Mormons see Alma 13 in the Book of Mormon as referring to human preexistence. Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, however, apparently did not.”1
On December 15, 1872, twenty eight years after the martyrdom of the prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Orson Pratt addressed a congregation one summer afternoon and devoted his entire topic to the pre-existence of spirits. Elder Pratt explains that his first exposure to the doctrine came from Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. Turning to the Book of Mormon and preexistence, Pratt explained: “I do not think that I should have ever discerned it in that book had it not been for the new translation of the Scriptures, that throwing so much light and information on the subject, I searched the Book of Mormon to see if there were indications in it that related to the pre-existence of man.”2
Pratt refers to the Book Ether, chapter 3, where the brother of Jared sees a vision of the premortal Christ, where the brother of Jared sees Christ in the form of a man. Christ tells the brother of Jared, “See thou that ye are created after mine own image?” Pratt views this as a reference to the premortality of man. After quoting Ether 3:15, Elder Pratt remarks “This is about the only place that refers pointedly to the pre-existence of man in the Book of Mormon” although he seems to suggest there could be one or two other references.3
Notably missing from his talk is any reference to the Book of Alma.
Examining similar language in the Bible, Charles Harrell argues that the language Alma uses
is identical to that used in the New Testament to describe how the elect are “afore prepared” (Rom. 9:23) and “chosen . . . before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4) “according to the foreknowledge of God” (1 Pet 1:2). The Saints in 1830 would have been no more disposed to infer preexistence from Alma’s teachings on foreordination than their contemporaries would from the New Testament teachings on election.4
It isn’t clear when Latter-day Saints began to see the premortal existence in Alma 13. However, much of it is due to reading notions of the “first estate” into Alma’s usage of the term “in the first place.”
For example, Brown in “Premortal Life,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, who also assumes the “exceeding faith and good works” referred to in Alma 13: 3 and 10 occurred in the pre-mortal realm, assumes that the phrase “in the first place” in Alma 13:3-5 refers to the “first estate” (Jude 1:6; Abr. 3:26) or premortal realm. However, a plain reading of Alma 13 indicates that “in the first place” simply means “in the first instance” without any allusions to a doctrine of premortal existence and surely not to a doctrine of premortal performance as the explanation for mortal callings to the high priesthood.
The phrase “first estate” is deliberate in Abraham 3:26. However, Alma simply makes no reference to the first estate. To read the first estate into the text seems to misconstrue a contextual reading of the Nephite narrative.
In addition, some readers may wish to harmonize Alma 13 with Abraham 3. However, this is not recommended. Abraham and Alma speak to different types of knowledge. In the Abrahamic narrative, God does not rely on foreknowledge. He stands in the midst of the spirits and has direct knowledge that they are noble and great ones (without offering a theory of how they became noble and great ones). In contrast, in Alma, it is not according to the knowledge of God, but according to the foreknowledge of God as to who will not harden their hearts and repent.
The drive to harmonize the scriptural accounts is very strong. However, by doing so, we often overlook and fail to appreciate the internal structure and consistency of the scripture narratives. We need to let the scriptures speak for themselves, sometimes independent of the narrative of other accounts. Alma’s narrative understood in within the socio-religious context of Nephite history best explains why he chooses to speak about the priesthood at all. Rather than lifting Alma 13 out of its narrative to make it support the doctrine of pre-existence ex post facto, we need to ask “Why here?” “Why now?” does Alma decide to make this argument? Only a careful reading of the text can inform us of this and also produce fruitful insights into the carefully constructed and beautifully woven account of God’s plan for redemption.
1. Terryl Givens, “When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought.” Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 360 fn. 21.
2. Orson Pratt, December 15, 1872, Journal of Discourses, vol. 15, p.250.
4. Harrell, Charles. “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830-1844,” BYU Studies (Spring 1988) 28:2. pp. 77-78