This expression, which seems pretty strange to moderns, is used a surprising number of times in the BoM. In this post, however, I want to compare how it is used in Alma the Younger’s angelophany (Alma 36) and the story of Simon’s interaction with Peter and John in Acts 8. The interesting thing about it is that although the exact same phrase is used in both stories, I think it expresses quite different emotional states.
What does “gall of bitterness” mean? That seems to depend on the context to a certain extent. It is a genitive construction that relates two nouns to each other. Everybody who has ever read the BoM knows the very famous genitive construction “plates of brass.” This is really just “brass plates.” And if we were to present “gall of bitterness” along these lines, then it would be “bitter gall” and we’d be talking about a nasty, and perhaps poisonous, drink. If one were “in the gall of bitterness,” then one might be said to be full of some really bad, “toxic” ideas.
However, when the two nouns that are linked together both “mean” the same thing, the effect is intensification: “heart of hearts” means “innermost feelings” and so on. So we need to know what the two nouns mean. Bitterness is a sharp pain, more or less. Gall, however, is a bit more complicated. It can mean “bitter feeling,” in which case this expression intensifies the expression of pain: one who is “in the gall of bitterness” is experiencing the bitterest of pains. However, before modern medicine gall as an internal organ was linked with the emotions of grief and joy. So then the expression “gall of bitterness” might express an intense state of sharp, bitter grief.
If we turn first to Alma 36, we find that Alma the Younger has been stunned into unconsciousness by the angel. In his interior monologue he displays a variety of intense emotions arising from his newly awakened sense of his evil. And so, in this painful state he says:
And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
In this case, it seems to me that we should understand “gall of bitterness” to mean “deepest grief” or alternatively, “harshest pain.” And in fact, this is often the implication of this expression in the BoM: those who do not align themselves with the “plan of happiness” are said to be “in the gall of bitterness” (e.g. Alma 41:11).
However, if we go to the story of Simon in Acts 8, it seems to me that grief and pain are not the issue. The story of Simon arises as part of the Philip’s preaching in Samaria. Simon has apparently been quite the Big Man around town, but Philip seems to have eclipsed him and Simon attaches himself to Philip and receives baptism. In the meantime, the apostles in Jerusalem decide to come up (go down!) to Samaria so that they can pass on the gift of the Holy Spirit. And when Philip sees this, well, he’s all excited (Acts 8:18-19):
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
And this little vignette is what gives a name to the sin (crime) of selling sacred things, including church offices: it’s called simony!
Anyway, Peter responded to Simon, telling Simon that his intentions are evil (Acts 8:20-23):
But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”
Since “gall of bitterness” is Peter’s description of Philip’s heart [thoughts], there’s no indication that Philip knows he’s done something wrong and regrets it. So in this case “gall of bitterness” probably means “full of evil, poisonous ideas” or some such thing, rather than that Simon is in pain or otherwise grieving. (Simon does ask Peter to pray for him in the next verse…so all turns out well until the Gnostics get a hold of this story…)
And there you have it: same phrase, different emotional experiences conveyed.