In the story of Alma the Younger we read how Alma and his friend were about to do wicked things to the church. His conversion story is very interesting and impressive. Why did an angel have to appear to basically tell them to stop and to repent? This is a powerful and efficient way to ask and individual to repent. Wouldn’t that intervene with their free agency to choose for themselves in a natural way like most of us?
The story of Alma the younger brings up a lot of good question (although this experience also changed the sons of Mosiah). One of those questions (for some) would surely be the questions you have proposed. Let’s first begin with your first question pertaining to “Why an Angel…”? The Book of Mormon actually addresses this question directly when the angel from the Lord said to Alma the younger (Mosiah 27:14)
“And again, the angel said: Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.”
Let’s review the important elements of this verse of scripture: 1) Prayers of faith by the people and Alma’s father, 2) That Alma the younger might learn knowledge, 3) In order for Alma to be convinced so that the prayers of the people and Alma’s father might be answered according to their faith.
What I have loved most about this scripture is that Alma’s moral agency is never removed. Two verses later (vs. 16) we read the following invitation from the angel, “And now I say unto thee, Alma, go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more, that their prayers may be answered, and this even if thou wilt of thyself be cast off.”
The invitation is to no longer seek to destroy the church (in order for prayers to be answered), or be cast off. This is the invitation and consequence if the invitation is not received. This invitation is no different than what Nephi taught when he said that we are free to either choose freedom and liberty through the great mediator, or captivity and bondage through the devil. Alma, at this moment, had a choice freedom through Christ, or bondage through the devil. His agency remained intact.
Now, let’s get to your other question. Does a visit from an angel remove agency (especially since all of us don’t receive such visits)? Let’s look to our scriptures further. In the Book of Mormon there were four sons who saw an angel. Two of these sons decided to take their anger out on the youngest son, and when one of the sons tried to protect the younger son the two older sons began hitting him also. I think you know where I am going with this: Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi.
The angel appeared before them. The angel chastened Laman and Lemuel with how they treated their younger brother, particularly Nephi’s whose heart was only to fulfill God’s will. The angel then informed them that Laban would be delivered into their hands and that they would be able to obtain the plates as directed by the Lord. How did the brothers respond? Laman and Lemuel immediately murmured, while Nephi knew the Lord would deliver Laban. An angel’s visit doesn’t remove our agency (but it does give us greater knowledge at least with angels existing).
Let’s look at another example from the Holy Bible in our New Testament. We are told about a man named Saul who persecuted the saints, and while he was on his way to Damascus we are able to read the following (Acts 9:3-20), “And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a alight from heaven…. And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
Let’s contrast Alma the younger with Saul (who we know became Paul). Saul wasn’t visited by any angel, he was visited by the Lord himself. When Jesus introduced himself to Saul, Saul was made blind (I would call that a little more compelling than with Alma the younger). Saul then asked Jesus what he was supposed to do, and Saul received an answer. Did any of this (even a visit from the Lord our Savior) remove Saul’s agency? No. Saul could have easily said, “No,” and accept being blind, but he didn’t. Saul decided to use his agency, and his newly discovered knowledge to obey his Lord. Saul/Paul was a great instrument in the hands of the Lord after that.
As we can see from scripture, even a visit from an angel doesn’t automatically convince a person to listen and obey. Our agency is never removed. Our knowledge will increase, but our agency will always remain intact as long as we have a choice.