Culture: Institutionally, Alma’s church has the flexibility to respond to a population increase so large that the people cannot “be governed by one teacher, neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly.” Our modern perspective may conceal how radical this change was—nothing short of a religious revolution. We need to understand what Alma’s churches were and the institution they replaced after Alma arrived on the scene.
We really have few details about Alma’s churches, but we should not read into it our own concepts of “church.” Despite Joseph Smith’s use of this term to translate this Book of Mormon organization, it may or may not be accurate.
What do we know about Alma’s church from the text alone?
• The church is entered by baptism.
• The church is apparently associated with a small geographic area, allowing for a smaller number of people to view themselves as an associated religious community.
• Each church has local priests and teachers.
• Alma retains a line of control from Alma to each of the priests and teachers, and through them to the congregation.
How do these details contrast with the pre-Alma situation?
• Nephite baptism existed, but there is no indication that it is used as a marker of entrance into a specific covenant that differed from the greater social covenant of Israel. Jacob’s doctrinal discussions make it clear that the Nephites considered themselves part of the covenant people. This identity would have continued as a collective covenant up to Alma’s time, when his baptism makes an individual covenant. King Benjamin’s individually assumed covenants occur in the context and assumption of communal participation in the covenant. Only Alma’s baptism denotes a separation in the community rather than a communal action.
• Priests and teachers had been appointed earlier, but were not associated with individual congregations. The original priests and teachers would again have been communal, rather than carrying out the congregation-specific functions Alma assigned them.
• The locus of religious authority resided in the king. Indeed, ancient kingship carried with it the assumption of divine investiture of power, covering all of society. As already remarked numerous times, religion was part and parcel of reality and therefore not seen as something that could be deemed separate. Alma’s establishment as an authority separate from the king not only diminishes the king, but establishes the possibility of the local “churches” by recognizing that religious authority may be ultimately delegated away from the communal unity embodied by the king.
What then was Alma’s church not? At least in its inception, it was not a separate religious system among other religious systems. While Alma’s reforms ultimately led to the possibility of seeing “church” as synonymous with “sect,” in this earliest setting it is much better seen as closer to the original Greek ekklesia or “gathering.” Alma’s church was a congregation geographically separated from other similar congregations for greater ease in instructing the congregation. When the Zarahemla population had grown too large for indoctrination en masse, division into smaller congregations would allow for more effective teaching, and therefore perhaps better understanding, and (one would hope) better daily integration of the correct principles.