As I’ve pointed out previously, the Book of Mormon moves at different paces in different places. We’ve spent the last two weeks making a slow section even slower, and that means that with today’s chapters, we’ve likely forgotten some important history relevant to today’s readings. After six chapters of doctrinal exposition, we hit the famed “war chapters.” Below, I quote from an old working paper of mine. (The entire paper with footnotes, a rough draft I quit working on ten years ago, is available here.)
In the end of the 17th year of the reign of the judges, Alma2 had taken his two younger sons Shiblon and Corianton, Amulek the convert, Zeezrom the Ammonihite lawyer, as well as King Mosiah’s sons Ammon, Aaron, and Omni on a mission to reclaim the apostate Zoramites in the city of Antionum (Alma 31:6). After some success among the poorer part of the Zoramites, the missionaries leave for Jershon. The Zoramites cast out the numerous converts, who go to live in Jershon among the people of Ammon, the Anti-Nephi-Lehis (Alma 35:1-6). The Zoramites, angry that the converts are being taken care of in Jershon, incite the Lamanites to go to war against the Nephites, particularly the Zoramite converts (Alma 35:8-11). All this happens in the end of the 17th year of the reign of the judges (Alma 35:12).
At this point in the text, Mormon inserts Alma2’s instructions to his sons (Alma 36-42). Alma2’s fatherly concern for his sons was caused by his prophetic awareness of “the iniquity of his people,” the increasing hardness of their hearts, and “the strictness of the word” (Alma 35:15-16). The insertion of these seven chapters of fatherly counsel effectively disrupts the chronological flow of the story, separating the cause and effect of the war chapters. When Mormon picks up the narrative history again in Alma 43, it is the beginning of the 18th year of the reign of the judges, and the Zoramite/Lamanite coalition formed in the end of the 17th year (Alma 35:10-12), is attacking.
In other words, we tend to miss what causes the war, because the causes and effect are separated by two weeks of Sunday lessons and six chapters of doctrinal exposition.
This first war takes place in Alma 43-44. The casual reader of the Book of Mormon may assume that it and the following war are between “righteous” Nephites and “wicked” Lamanites. A closer reading reveals two things. First, although the Nephite opponents are called Lamanites 46 times throughout chapters 43 and 44, this is simply following Jacob’s pattern of “call[ing] them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi” (Jacob 1:14). Recall that the “Zoramites became Lamanites” in Alma 43:4, clearly using Lamanite as a term of political/religious alignment. Second, both wars are caused by dissenting Nephites with religious disagreements– the first war by apostate Nephites (the Zoramites) trying to destroy converts to the church, and the second war by Nephite political conspirators led by Amalickiah and angered by religious reform (Alma 45:21-24, 46:1-3).
In the first war, the Nephites defeat the now-Lamanite dissenters at the end of the 18th year of the judges. After this year of war, the Nephites had become hardened, necessitating that Helaman1 make a “regulation” in the church and establish new priests and teachers (Alma 45:21-22). A presumably small group composed of politically prominent lower judges and wealthy Nephites rebelled against this reformation (Alma 45:23-24, 46:4). Amalickiah became the leader of this group, flattering the others into submission (Alma 46:3, 5). Together, they led many people away from the church (Alma 46:7) and plotted the assassination of Helaman1 and other church leaders (Alma 46:2). Not content with simply removing the annoyance of church intervention, this group eventually aspired to overturn the government of judges established by Mosiah2 and reinstate the monarchy with Amalickiah on the throne (Alma 46:4). Such was his plan.
When Amalickiah realized that the majority of the people would not follow him (Alma 46:29), he and some supporters fled to the wilderness and then to the Lamanites, among whom he preached anti-Nephite propaganda (Alma 47:1). As a result, the Lamanite king declared war on the Nephites (Alma 47:1-2). However, the majority of the Lamanite military refused to fight out of fear for their lives, and fled to a place of arms (Alma 47:2, 5). Angry at such insubordination, the king placed Amalickiah in command of the loyal minority, and assigned him to force the rebels to battle against the Nephites (Alma 47:3). After gaining control of the rest of the Lamanite military through murder and deception, Amalickiah had his servants kill the Lamanite king (Alma 47:22-24), framed the king’s own servants for the murder (Alma 47:25-34), and married the queen (Alma 47:35). This had been his plan from beginning of his time among the Lamanites (Alma 47:4). Thus did Amalickiah “obtain power by fraud and deceit” (Alma 48:7).
One of my favorite and applicable Book of Mormon passages is found in these chapters, contrasting Amalickiah with Moroni.
Now it came to pass that while Amalickiah had thus been obtaining power by fraud and deceit, Moroni, on the other hand, had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God. (Alm 48:7 BOM)
How do we prepare minds to be faithful? Not, I think, by oversimplifying the Gospel, Church history or doctrine, nor by preventatively standing in front of the closet door with the skeletons in it, fingers in our ears.
We teach as people are able to understand, and that often means pushing slightly beyond their comfort zone. Elder Ballard was quite straightforward when he charged Seminary and Institute teachers with knowing the Gospel Topics essays “like the back of your hand” and being the first to introduce these topics to students from within a context of faith. (If you haven’t read that talk yet, you absolutely must.)
Having taught Institute for roughly a dozen years, Seminary recently, a few classes at BYU, and various firesides and conferences, I have some strong opinions on how we strengthen minds. I think my primary principle has become “complexity up front“: If the situation calls for a simplified overview, an introduction, then that’s what you do. But you also let them know very clearly, “it’s more complicated than I’m presenting, there’s more to this that you should know, this is just an introduction.” You don’t give the impression that this is all there is, because it is rarely ever the case.
For more of my thoughts on “preparing minds to be faithful,” see my article which was almost published in The Ensign.
- One answer to the question, “why the war chapters?” might simply be this. Mormon is so impressed by “Captain” Moroni (it’s not really his name, you know) that he names his son after him, and these are Captain Moroni stories. Mormon is drawing an implicit comparison between his time and Captain Moroni’s time. Both are times of war, precipitated by apostasy. BUT, back then, they had Moroni, and they pulled through. In Mormon’s time, there is no Moroni, and, Mormon thinks, “if more people like Moroni had been around this time, perhaps the Nephites wouldn’t have been destroyed.” In other words, Mormon is looking back through the records at a kind of “alternate universe” in which Nephite civilization is similarly threatened, but instead of falling apart like it does in Mormon’s day, Moroni is able to swing history the other direction. There are certainly other wars described in the Book of Mormon, but these are the ones that talk about Moroni, and he’s the guy Mormon finds so interesting in the records. Imagine him sitting there, surround by plates and destruction, thinking “this could have all been different, if we’d had a Moroni.”
- Alma 46:21-22 At a recent BYU conference, I gave a paper about “Joseph Smith, JST Hebrews 9:15-19, and Covenant Curses,” and talked about this passage somewhat.
That talk will be posted here at some point soon.Alas, due to technical error, the recording failed. In the meantime, I suggest reading Mark Morisse, “Simile Curses in the Book of Mormon and the ancient Near East” from JBMS and my brief summary about covenant patterns here.
- The Maxwell Institute published an entire volume dealing with Warfare in the Book of Mormon.
- John Welch’s introductory article therein has a very useful concise summary of these wars, which I have excerpted here. (Very worth looking at.)
- That volume is now aging. Morgan Deane, a former Marine and military historian, is a new name writing on warfare in the Book of Mormon. See his blog and (self-published?) book here. I have not read this, but heard good things.
- For a different perspective, see Even Unto Bloodshed: an LDS Perspective on War (reviews here, here, and here) and War & Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (ed. Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, and Richard Bushman. Reviews here, here and here, kind of.) In full disclosure, I have not read these either.
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