Monday, December 10, 2007

Ode to the Nameless Wife of a Once-Wayward Man

I talked last time about my love of stories of exemplary women from the scriptures, even though they are fairly few and far between. One woman that I've thought about a lot lately is the wife of Alma the Younger. We never learn her name. In fact, Alma never even mentions her existence, but he had children, so I figure he must have had a wife.

What of this woman's story can we reconstruct, without any mention of her? What lessons can we learn from her life? I've managed to gain a lot from her. Bear with me for a moment as I construct what I believe is a convincing picture of her character.

First, let's review her husband's life. His father, also named Alma, was the high priest over the church in his land. Alma Jr., therefore, was in line for the office, and should have been among the most righteous, given his noble parentage. Instead, Alma and his buddies, the sons of Mosiah, went about trying to destroy the church of God. Alma "became a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities. And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them" (Mosiah 27:8-9).

So Alma, in spite of his father's teachings, was a bad apple. I imagine, based on his description of his torment and his later attempts to make restitution for his sins, that he was guilty of apostasy, idolatry, adultery, hedonism, and a few other fairly heinous things. I also imagine, leading the wild lifestyle he was, that he wasn't married at the time. (This argument also holds up if he was married, but it's simpler and more intuitive if he was a wild, wicked bachelor.)

Now the short version of the rest of his story (this post is supposed to be about his wife, after all): An angel appears to Alma and his buddies as they're out worshipping idols, sleeping around, and generally breaking every known commandment. The angel gives Alma a royal telling-off, and he falls into a coma for a few days wherein he is tortured with all his sins, comes to Christ, applies the Atonement, repents, wakes up, and testifies of Christ, his past sins, and his current saved condition. The he and his buddies spend years going around preaching the gospel, confessing their sins, and trying to repair the wrongs they had done. Alma eventually becomes high priest (Alma 4:4), like his father. He has some sons. He gives some of the most powerful and profound discourses in the Book of Mormon, and, at the end of his life, was translated (we think) (Alma 45:18-19).
(For a more complete account of his life, see Alma 36, Mosiah 27, Robert Millet's article, and the Wikipedia article on him.)

Great. So how about his wife? We don't know much about her. Maybe she isn't mentioned because she died in childbirth. Maybe she outlived Alma. No idea. We don't have any of her words recorded.

But, going with the assumption that she married Alma after his spectacular conversion, we know one major thing about her: She must have understood and had faith in the power of the Atonement. Think of it--Alma and his father must have been well-known in their community. Alma's people must have known of their leader's greatness and his struggles with his wayward son. They would have heard him preach to them, and seen the sorrow in his eyes as he preached against the sin that was growing in the hearts of his people, hearts he knew were being led away by his own son. There must have been sleepless nights for Alma Senior and his wife as they wondered how they had failed as parents, and what they could do to reclaim their son. Alma Senior organized a group fast and prayer when Alma Jr. was struck down, and Alma Jr.'s testimony, confession, and missionary work were public. So his wife would have known of his prior rebellion. She would have known of the depth of his apostasy and wickedness. She may even have personally known the people whose testimonies he destroyed, the women whose virginity he took, the people he flattered away from their covenants and responsibilities. The community could not have been so large that she would have been unaware of Alma's past, for "this thing was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26).

Yet she married Alma and bore him three sons: Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton (who strayed while on his mission but later returned and repented). She must have been a great woman to be the wife of such a great prophet, and to raise such great sons.

I wonder if her husband's past ever tortured her. I wonder what she thought about before she married him. I can't believe that his past didn't cross her mind. I imagine that she thought long and hard about his repentance, and about what repentance really means. She must have understood that the Atonement really does have the power to change a person, to give them a different character, to change their desires. She had the faith required to marry him because she knew that the power of the Atonement was real, that she didn't have to worry about her husband straying again, because he had experienced a "might change of heart," and had "no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2).

One of my greatest fears has always been that I would marry a man who was abusive or unfaithful to me or to the Lord. What Alma's wife did strikes me as terrifying, which may be why I admire her so much for her understanding of a principle I believe, but have yet to fully comprehend.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already...And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:16-19).


  1. Aren't odes supposed to be set to music? That was my initial question, and with a brief consultation I found that my supposition was correct. An ode is a poem that is usually meant to be sung. Now I'm sure you and I are thinking exactly the same thing. Precisely, I was thinking that too! Just what music did amy intend this blog entry to be set to? I tried singing it aloud to "Mary had a Little Lamb," but I didn't think that was it exactly. I don't know. Maybe next I'll try "Jingle Bells."

  2. interesting point. I had thought about this. Although Alma's sins are indeed "henious" never do they mention the sin of adultery or fornication. Yet they make explicit the sins of 1) tearing down others testimonies, and 2) idolarty. Although correlation studies might show a positive correlation between the states sins, and adultery, we cannot conclude that he committed it. Furthermore, I believe that he did not commit this particular sin for several reasons.
    1) It appears as if the sin of adultery was far less socially acceptable in Alma's day than it is today.
    2) As Alma was trying to tear down the church of God, and as he was rather sucessfulat doing so, it is unlikely that anyone in that day would believe an adulterer.
    3) Mormon chooses to include Corianton's specific sin of adultery when Alma counsels him, but not in the list of Alma's sins.
    4) in Alma's counsel to his son Corianton, he makes no mention of any jaunt with adulterous behavior. If it was public knowledge he might have used his own experience as a teaching tool.
    5) When he goes on his mission to reclaim apostate Nephites, he is already quite well known, having served as chief priest and chief judge. It seems strange that the people do not throw his sins back in his face as an excuse for them to commit sin.
    6) When Mormon talks about Anti-Christs, he mentions that the law can have no hold on them because of their belief. This clause allows them to preach against the coming of Christ. Yet he also mentions that those who kill, lie, steal, and (suprise) commit adultery are punished according to the law. As there are no records of any legal proceedings against Alma, it seems clear that his sins were sins not covered by the law, that rather fell under "belief."

    All of that said, and I realize that a few of those points do have some minor holes in them, I think you are right on about his wife. Although I do not believe she endured the agony of past sexual transgression, she still would have to live with his other sins.

    Furthermore, it must have also been hard for her in later life. She had to keep the home while Alma was gone on multiple missions. She probably had to take a backseat as Alma ran the church and the whole nation. She got to worry as Alma was away preaching to a rebellious people, a people who would ridicule him, confine him in dungeons, spit upon him, smite him, and make him watch as they burned those who believed on his words, including the family of his companion Amulek right before his very eyes.
    Truly, she was a remarkable woman.

  3. Goodness, David, that was an involved objection. Let's see if I can respond to all those points.
    1. Yes, this is true.
    2. I don't believe that adultery would make him unsuccessful--in fact, it would make him even more successful. Sexual sin is incredibly effective in destroying the church—we’re seeing that today, as pornography, an incredibly effective lie, is decimating the ranks of the faithful young (and old) men of the church.
    Mosiah 27 says of Alma that “he became a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities.” (v. 8)
    Here it seems evident that there were actual iniquities being done and being taught to others, not just incorrect beliefs being taught. Granted, incorrect beliefs may have been at the root, but when one ceases to understand his relationship to God, one ceases to have motivation to keep his commandments, and wholesale transgression soon follows.
    Mormon continues:
    “And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them. And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king...” (v. 9-10). Notice the emphasis on secrecy. This explains the lack of legal proceedings. But it is very clear that what he is doing is not just a matter of belief, but is in fact against the law.

    Alma even says, in his own account of the experience:
    “I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments. Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:12-14).

    Alma admits he had led many away unto destruction—in fact, had committed a sin next to murder. D&C 132 talks extensively about destruction as a consequence of adultery.

    3. Mormon doesn’t really list any of Alma’s sins, just says he was very wicked and doing “all manner” of iniquity. I think that means we can basically assume he was committing every sin in the book.

    4. No. Details of past transgressions should not be used as a teaching tool, lest the teacher be discredited. This is called the “Missionary 5th.”

    5. Perhaps they did. Then again, they aren’t living in the area he was living in, so they may not have known.

    6. This is false, see #2 above.