(The Waters of Mormon – Jorge Cocco)
Where did Alma the Elder get the legitimate priesthood authority to baptize at the waters of Mormon?
In Mosiah, Alma the Elder teaches the words of Abinadi, and assembles a small group of believers, whom he baptizes:
And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart. And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world. And after Alma had said these words, both Alma and Helam were buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit. And again, Alma took another, and went forth a second time into the water, and baptized him according to the first, only he did not bury himself again in the water (Mosiah 18:12–15).
Since Alma had been a wicked priest of King Noah, where did he receive the legitimate priesthood authority to baptize?
President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:
We should take into consideration in the study of the Book of Mormon the fact that it is an abridgment taken from the records or history that had been kept by the prophets among the Nephites. Therefore, many of the details are lacking. This is equally true of the history of Israel as it has come down through the years to us in the Bible. We are left to accept the fact that Lehi, when he left Jerusalem, held divine authority and that this divine power was handed down from generation to generation until the time of the visitation of the Savior. Moreover, while the detail is lacking, the evidence is very clear that the Melchizedek Priesthood was possessed by the Nephites.
There were none of the tribe of Levi among them, therefore it was by virtue of the Melchizedek Priesthood that they officiated. There are many passages in the Book of Mormon in which reference is given to the Holy Priesthood. We should also remember that the record that we have received is an abridgment, and therefore many of the details are of necessity missing. Moreover, we are informed that many important things have been withheld from us because of the hardness of our hearts and our unwillingness, as members of the Church, to abide in the covenants or seek for divine knowledge.
In the case of Alma and his priesthood, we are left to surmise that he legally and divinely received it before the days of King Noah. We read that Zeniff, the father of Noah, was a righteous man. Alma evidently received the priesthood in the days of Zeniff, and at no time did he fully accept the teachings nor with full purpose follow the counsels and procedure of Noah and his wicked priests…
Just at what time Alma received the priesthood is not clearly stated, but we may presume that it occurred before Noah came to the throne. Moreover, we must also conclude that Alma at no time truly entered into the wickedness of this wicked king…
Where did Alma get his authority? Evidently he obtained it when he received the priesthood, which through his repentance he had not lost. There can be no serious question in relation to his authority, for it is written – “And it came to pass that Alma; having authority from God, ordained priests; even one priest to every fifty of their number did he ordain to preach unto them, and to teach them concerning the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 18:18)
LDS author Daniel C. Peterson wrote in a similar vein:
The case of Alma brings up at least two interesting questions: (1) Were the priests of Noah legitimate holders of legitimate priesthood, and (2) Where did Alma get his authority? We have to assume Alma and his one-time colleagues were ordained validly by Noah (Mosiah 11:5), who was also ordained validly by his father, Zeniff. The fact that Noah was not righteous after he was ordained and that Alma himself was part of Noah’s priestly group during his early ministry has nothing to do with Alma’s priesthood authority. Until superior priesthood authority withdraws permission to exercise priestly functions, a legitimately ordained holder of the priesthood continues to hold valid priesthood-however unrighteous he may be, however dead to spiritual promptings, and however unlikely it may be that he will ever actually exercise his priesthood.
Alma, in fact, claimed to have authority from God (Mosiah 18:13), a claim which Mormon implicitly acknowledges as valid (Mosiah 18:18). Alma was a descendant of Nephi (Mosiah 17:2), a fact which may or may not be significant in discussing his priesthood authority since we do not know precisely how the priesthood functioned or was apportioned among the Nephites. Certainly most, if not in fact all, of the priests and kings of whom we know anything in the Book of Mormon up to this point were of the lineage of Nephi. Furthermore, in the power vacuum left by the absence of king Noah, the people implored Alma to assume the royal title and prerogatives (Mosiah 23:6). He turned down the title, but out of necessity, he did carry out some kingly duties. Alma ordained priests and teachers for his outcast people, among whom he was in fact the sole human source of authority (Mosiah 18:18; 23:17).