By the end of the second century before Christ, during the generation or so following the abdication of King Benjamin, Nephite society had undergone several major upheavals. Having already absorbed the numerous and linguistically foreign Mulekites, they then learned of the earlier Jaredites and had to assimilate separate groups led by Limhi and Alma.
It's perhaps not surprising, given the strains undoubtedly created by those huge societal shifts, that dissension broke out among them.
"Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers" (Mosiah 26:1).
In other words, they hadn't personally experienced Benjamin's powerful abdication speech. And their parents had somehow failed to convey its power to them.
"They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ. And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened" (26:2-3). Moreover, "they would not call upon the Lord their God" (26:4).
Unwilling hearts do not, cannot, fully understand the divine. As the apostle Paul observed, "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). As the great Latin church father St. Augustine (d. A.D. 430) would later say, "Crede, ut intelligas." "Believe, so that you may understand."
The real problem with these dissenters, however, wasn't merely that they disbelieved. It was that they sought to lead others into disbelief, as well, and into lifestyles contrary to the commandments of God. "For it came to pass that they did deceive many with their flattering words, who were in the church, and did cause them to commit many sins" (26:6).
One of the recurring themes of the Book of Mormon in depicting prominent opponents of the prophets is their eloquence, their ability to influence and even manipulate others by the power of their language. Korihor, for example, "did rise up in great swelling words before Alma" (Alma 30:31), and Amalickiah was "a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words" (Alma 46:10). So, too, with these dissenters. Their danger was posed by their "flattering words."
Among this new generation of enemies of the church, unfortunately, were some of the best and the brightest, from the elite class of the most privileged — including, no less, four princes of the royal house and a son of the high priest.
"Now the sons of Mosiah were numbered among the unbelievers; and also one of the sons of Alma was numbered among them, he being called Alma, after his father." Alma, in particular, "became a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities" (Mosiah 27:8).
Beneficiaries, presumably, of the best education available — it would have been, in the nature of Nephite society, a religious education based, to some extent at least, on the scriptures — and the sons of prophets and seers, these men were entirely clear about what they were doing: "They were going about rebelling against God" (27:10).
This wasn't just a falling or a drifting away. It was a knowing, conscious revolt. But it was also clandestine, surreptitious, sneaky. Alma "did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church" (27:10). It's very doubtful, though, that they would have openly admitted that their goal was "to destroy the church." Perhaps they wouldn't even have admitted it to themselves.
No doubt they felt that what they were doing was right. They may have rationalized the fact that their "flattering words" opened the door to "iniquities" forbidden by the faith of their fathers as merely a coincidental, liberating side benefit.
We know how the story of Alma and the sons of Mosiah ends. It finishes wonderfully, in redemptive divine grace. Do we know, though, how to recognize their modern counterparts? And, please, don't doubt that they exist. As President Ezra Taft Benson repeatedly insisted, the Book of Mormon was "written for our day."
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.