This commendation from the Lord comes as Alma the Elder inquired what to do about the widespread transgression in the church.
15 Blessed art thou, Alma, and blessed are they who were baptized in the waters of Mormon. Thou art blessed because of thy exceeding faith in the words alone of my servant Abinadi.
This seems to indicate that when Alma was converted, it wasn’t because Abinadi had authority but because Alma had faith in the truth Abinadi shared. And when Alma taught King Noah’s people in secret, it seems they didn’t believe because any institutional legimacy he had from being a priest (rather, he had lost his institutional legitimacy in the eyes of King Noah and the other priests and could have lost it in the eyes of the other people as well), but they believed simply in the words that Alma shared. They believed the truth.
The Lord calls it “exceeding faith” to believe in a single witness’s words of truth, and when you think about how much effort it takes to teach people these days, we can see how true that is. The Lord sends multiple witnesses to testify of the truth, so when someone believes with just one witness, it is something special.
And blessed art thou because thou hast established a church among this people; and they shall be established, and they shall be my people. (Mosiah 26:17)
For a long time I didn’t understand why the Lord would commend Alma for doing what it seemed like he should have done anyway, but then I ran across this verse:
Now king Mosiah had given Alma the authority over the church. (Mosiah 26:8)
It seems that perhaps Alma didn’t strictly have the authority to organize a church in Shilom or in Helam, but he was given it by King Mosiah in Zarahemla, which means that the church meetings at the waters of Mormon and in Helam were a sort of grassroots organization, an anticipatory church.
Because Alma was a priest at that time, he had authority to baptize and ordain other priests and teachers, but it seems he didn’t necessarily have the authority to establish a church, yet the people gathered together anyway, and they acted like a church anyway, under his leadership.
I think this initiative to prepare themselves to be churched was what the Lord was praising Alma for.
This would also explain why Alma was skittish about rendering judgment on people’s transgressions. If he had been more used to being a grassroots authority who taught and baptized, the prospect of rendering judgment might seem uncomfortable. It would feel like over-stepping his authority. We also know that he was worried he would do wrong, perhaps worried he would make bad judgments like King Noah and his priests had done. And too, perhaps his days as a sinner came back to him and it was hard to judge those who may have committed the same sins he had.
The instructions the Lord gives afterward are good hard fast doctrine of how to tell who should stay in the church and who should be blotted out from the rolls. Alma, who seems to have only previously dealt with repentant people who wanted in, would appreciate this doctrine.
For me, this story seems more like an encouragement toward taking the initiative as a leader. I wonder how many problems could be solved in the church with innovative leadership? I know in the Great Depression, Harold B. Lee was a stake president who was challenged with finding a way to help the members of his stake, more than half of whom were unemployed.
Here was a challenge, a terrifying challenge, for the young stake president. He worried, he wept, he prayed, as he saw men, once proud and prosperous, reduced through unemployment to a point where they could not feed their families. Then came inspiration to establish a storehouse where food and commodities could be gathered and from which they could be dispersed to the needy. Work projects were undertaken, not only to improve the community, but, more importantly, to afford men an opportunity to work for what they received. An old business building was demolished and the materials were used to construct a stake gymnasium to provide social and recreational facilities for the people. Other stakes were engaged in similar projects… (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. xvi)
On April 20, 1935, Harold B. Lee was called into the office of the First Presidency. They knew him as a young stake president who had been successful in caring for the poor and needy. According to Harold B. Lee,
President Grant…said that there was nothing more important for the Church to do than to take care of its needy people and that so far as he was concerned, everything else must be sacrificed [so that] proper relief [could be] extended to our people. I was astounded to learn that for years there had been before them, as a result of their thinking and planning and as a result of the inspiration of Almighty God, the genius of the very plan that was waiting and in preparation for a time when, in their judgment, the faith of the Latter-day Saints was such that they were willing to follow the counsel of the men who lead and preside in this Church. (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, p. xxiii)
It seems that what surprised Harold B. Lee was that the First Presidency had been waiting and planning to put the welfare plan into operation, and it struck him that what he had been doing in his stake to help his people was demonstrating to the First Presidency that the time to put those plans into action had come.
It seems there is a principle at work here. The best way I can describe it is this way: we show we are ready for change or revelation to come when we move toward it first.