This post is a summary of the article “Abridging the Records of the Zoramite Mission: Mormon as Historian” by Steven L. Olsen in Volume 52 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.
An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Olsen points to several patterns in Alma 31 that appear to provide a framework for how Mormon understood Alma’s mission to the Zoramites, one that presages the eventual decline of Nephite society.
In this lightly edited article based on a 1992 presentation (a version of which also appeared in the August 1992 Ensign), Steven L. Olsen surveys an array of literary patterns in Alma 31 that provide potential insight into how Mormon structured his abridgement of the Alma’s mission to the Zoramites. These include a deeper understanding of Alma’s motivations, a contrast between apostate and true religious practices, and how the story of the Zoramites functions within Mormon’s broader narrative.
For instance, Olsen sees three distinct motivations underlying Alma’s mission: concern for the iniquity of the people, the reintegration of the Zoramites into Nephite society, and preventing the Zoramites from
allying with the Lamanites. Olsen then suggests that Mormon’s abridged narrative hinges on the concept of
prayer, contrasting the apostate practices of the Zoramites with the prayer of Alma. Where Zoramite prayer occurred only at a specific time and place, emphasized exclusivity, had no discernable impact on behavior, had a fixed structure, and explicitly denied the coming of Christ, Alma’s prayer was broadly inclusive, had identifiable impact, and sought aid from the Savior. Olsen also points out instances where the Zoramites’ apostates practices are explicitly contradicted in other parts of the narrative, with true worship occurring at
all places and times, addressing a broad set of (non-fixed) concerns, and invoking charity for others.
Olsen notes that Alma’s mission is largely unsuccessful, and he sees Mormon as using this lack of success to as a turning-point in the trajectory of Nephite society. Following the Zoramite narrative, the Nephites experience waves of government corruption, war, and natural disaster that eventually culminate in their destruction, punctuated by the coming of Christ and other brief periods of repentance. Olsen sees this example as one of the ways that Mormon has structured and crafted his abridgement to describe how a relationship with the divine has been integrated into the lives of Book of Mormon peoples.
I’m grateful for Olsen’s brief bite of insight, and one that demonstrates the value of teaching by (terrible) example. One could imagine a Book of Mormon that was nothing but righteous people living righteous lives, but not only would that have been an intolerable bore, it would’ve been a missed opportunity. The Zoramites are a vivid example of how not to approach religious worship. Telling us their story both helps us spot these toxic tendencies in our own culture and allows Alma to set up a powerful alternative vision of religion done right.
It also reminds us that not every gospel effort is destined for success, even ones with demonstrable divine support. Whether it truly marks the turning-point toward the Nephites’ ultimate decline is probably debatable, but it was certainly a (tragic) turning-point for the Zoramites themselves, and it left the Nephites in a much more vulnerable strategic position. The true value of his mission, then, wasn’t in Alma’s larger strategic objectives, and was probably found more in the individual hearts that were touched by his words and by the Spirit. Hopefully we can recognize that kind of value in the midst of our own spiritual and temporal setbacks, as inevitable as they are.