A Brief Note on Alma and Corianton

Corianton is greeted by his father, Alma the Younger, in the land of Zarahemla.

Corianton Being Greeted By His Father

Alma the Younger strikes me as one of the sterner of the prophets, which makes sense if you consider his background. I know a few people in my life who have had similar, if less spectacular trajectories. It’s not an ironclad rule that those who wander tend to be more intense about obedience on their return, but it’s at least a correlation.

And that has colored how I read his words, especially in the letters / commands to his sons and especially in the chapters addressed to Corianton. 

Something changed for me as I read these chapters in preparation for my Gospel Doctrine lesson last week, however. I noticed for the first time that although chapter 39 is the one I always remember and although it is full of memorable lines (“I would to God that ye had not been guilty of so great a crime,” vs. 7) it’s a relatively short portion of the total addressed to Corianton. After dealing directly with Corianton’s screwups in chapter 39, Alma never mentions them again in chapters 40 – 42.

That ratio seems important. We, as parents and leaders, may tend to get stuck on the “you done wrong” portion and kind of hammer that home. Alma the Younger very plainly states what Corianton did wrong but then doesn’t belabor it. He sustains the conversation for a long time, but never returns to that topic. 

This called to mind another famous verse, D&C 121:43:

43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

Instead of seeing 40 – 42 in a kind of exasperated, lecturing tone (which is how I’ve always heard Alma’s voice in my head for these chapters), it occurred to me that spending so much time on Corianton’s concerns may very well have been an act of love. 

The style of chastisement Alma uses here relies on trust. Trust in the other person that you don’t have to sort of hold their eyelids open and make them stare at their wrong-doing until they break. Trust that, instead, once you give them the info, they will wrestle with it themselves. Trust in God and in the Holy Spirit that, even as you move on to show forth love and address other concerns, the Spirit will work on the heart of the person you’re chastising. It’s humble. You’re not demanding an admission or hanging around to be a participant or (worse) a spectator in the repentance process. You’re stepping back, and allowing the person and God to work through it together. 

It’s also very loving. It makes the painful part short, and then emphasizes love. That’s what I think Alma the Younger is doing here. 

Which raises another point: when we try to see the words and actions of the prophets in the best light possible, I think we can learn more than being quick to write them off as fallible, even though they are. This might not be a universally beneficial exegetical tool, but I think we can differentiate between historical passages (“this is what happened”, where the lesson might very well be what not to do) and teaching passages (“here’s a sermon from so-and-so,” where the lesson is more likely to be hand-picked as a good example). 

So I’m not necessarily advocating for a kind of across-the-board “assume they’re right” stance, but a more narrow approach that (1) is specific to the Book of Mormon, with its editorial review process and (2) differentiates between kinds of texts. In short: when Mormon has excerpted a teaching passage from another prophet, we have at least two prophets who are saying, “This is the good stuff.” So it very probably is. Even if not word-for-word perfect, we’re looking at high-grade, double-screened passage, and we should be heavily disposed towards assuming it’s correct.

I say this because Alma the Younger has a pretty harsh style in a lot of ways, and so if we’re not giving him the benefit of the doubt I think we naturally read Alma 39 – 42 as pretty doctrinaire theologizing. That’s how I’ve always read it in the past. 

This time I thought instead about how, of all the people who could empathize with Corianton’s disastrous sabotage of his father’s work (intentional or not), Alma the Younger would have the best insight. He had, after all, done much the same thing. 

3 comments for “A Brief Note on Alma and Corianton

  1. August 9, 2020 at 6:19 pm

    Thank you for this.

  2. Gilgamesh
    August 10, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    I have always viewed Alma the Younger as a gentle, yet clear in his commitment prophet. With Corianton, I see it not as a rebuke, but more of a “I’ve been there, it sucks and I wish you did not have to go through this.” You see it with former addicts working with currect addicts. Their firmness comes not from judgment, but more a recognition of what is to come if there is not a change.

    I always liked Alma 33 and 34 as a view into Alma’s understanding of himself. Both 33 and 34 cover the same material. Alma speaks in 33 and Amulek in 34, reiterating Alma’s prior words. Alma’s approach comes off a more of a pleading for those who are in sin to pray and connect to God. “Just pray, it will work. Just try it. Anywhere. God will answer you. Just try.” He is speaking as one who was lost and should have been rejected by God, but he was redeemed and God can do the same if you just pray.

    Almulek, on the other hand, has been a lukewarm believer. Never off the deep end, but not very committed. His approach to the same scenario is, “You all know better. You should pray because you know God will listen. Don’t give me any excuses. You can pray in your garden, you can pray in your closet. You know this, just do it.”

    I presume some responded better to Alma and others to Almulek, which is why both are in the scriptures. But Alma is a sinner who found grace that was unearned. That is what he is giving to Corianton.

  3. Jonathan
    August 10, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    Corianton has always been my hero of the Book of Mormon. We focus on his mistakes, of course, and they were serious. But at the end he is called to the work again. He serves honorably multiple missions preaching the Gospel. We find out in chapter 63 that but for the fact he departed to the north he would have been the next prophet to receive the plates and we would have the Book of Corianton to follow the Book of Alma.

    Long story short? Corianton was a man who knew how to repent and he left his sins behind him and lived the life of a disciple. I don’t know how much Alma’s approach to his son deserves the credit for that, but Corianton is someone we ought to look up to rather than pity.

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