One of the most important scriptural texts for the theological consideration of poverty is to be found in Alma 32. This chapter discusses Alma’s mission to the Zoramites. During a sermon on the hill Onidah, Alma is approached by a group of impoverished individuals who were “poor in heart, because of their poverty as to the things of the world” (v. 4). In effect, because of poverty and social exclusion, these people had become an ideal audience for Alma’s missionary efforts. So the question arises: Is poverty therefore a virtuous force, bringing people to Christ who would otherwise reject the gospel message?
In fact, upon closer examination, the text in Alma suggests that the answer is, at the very least, more complex. The critical passage is Alma 32: 12-16, in which Alma explains that poverty has caused these people to become humble and accept the gospel, but that those who humble themselves and accept the gospel without being forced to do so by social and economic circumstances are more blessed. In Alma’s words, “he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessedâ€”yea, much more blessed than they who are compelled to be humble because of their exceeding poverty” (15).
Why is it that those who accept the gospel without extreme poverty are more blessed than poor people who also accept the gospel? The text states that one group is “compelled” in the direction of acceptance while the other is not. Hence, affluent individuals, being less compelled by circumstance, have a greater degree of agency with respect to decisions about humbling themselves and accepting the gospel. As a result, affluent individuals are more accountable for these decisions and therefore more blessed when they choose Christ. People suffering in poverty, on the other hand, retain some agency and therefore receive some blessing when they choose Christ — but not as much as if they had been in circumstances allowing a less externally compelled choice.
Within Mormon theology, the concept of being compelled to make a spiritually desirable choice — and therefore losing agency and blessings with respect to that choice — is associated with Satan. Indeed, some program or other built around these ideas is typically presented as having been Satan’s plan in the preexistence. This discussion has argued that poverty plays a partially coercive role in people’s moral and spiritual lives to the extent that, as Alma says, it compels humility and acceptance of the gospel. Hence, there is some reason to believe that poverty is, in Mormon theological categories, a Satanic force in our world.