Monday, November 25, 2019

Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon: Part Three Alma 25:26

This is part three of a series. See part one, part two, part four, part five, part six, part seven.

The next mention of preemptive war comes from Ammon’s speech. He doesn’t include many details, but he did contrast he and his companions’ successful missionary service with the desire of the Nephites for preemptive war. At the time of the missionaries departure the Nephites reportedly said of the Lamanites, “Let us take up arms against them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us” (Alma 26:25.) Aaron, one of the individuals that was at that speech, as the son of Mosiah (II) was only two generations removed from the serious wars faced by King Benjamin and the attack led by Zeniff. This timeline is little longer than World War II is from current policy makers and suggests that preemptive strikes were still common in the discussions held by Nephite leaders, and this was viewed by many, as a legitimate Nephite strategy. The highly successful missionary effort and its explicit contrast with the peaceful conversion of many Lamanites seems to be the first indication that the Nephites wanted a better and more spiritual strategy. Ammon at least saw his successful conversion of the Lamanites as a repudiation of the strategy and current 21st century peace advocates see this as a strong rebuke of all warfare, not just the strategy of preemptive warfare.[1] Joshua Madsen wrote, for example, that the service of missionaries “defied cultural stereotypes” and showed that “love and service can break through false cultural narratives, unite kingdoms, and converts thousand to Christianity where violence could not…In the end, Nephite just wars did not bring peace, whereas those like Ammon who rejected their culture’s political narratives and hatred did.”[2]

Yet, Ammon’s success as a missionary benefited greatly from his martial prowess. According to William Hamblin and Brent Merrill, it was not impossible, but took a great deal of skill and application of military training to disarm a foe in a single stroke.[3] The servants that Ammon protected with his disarming prowess seemed to practice the post battle Mesoamerican custom of the presenting of arms, which suitably impressed the Lamanite king and made him receptive to Ammon’s preaching.[4] The other missionaries gained access to the king’s father by Ammon’s success in one on one combat against that head king (Alma 20:20). In short, his missionary efforts benefited from his rigorous military training, and from the martial customs of the day. At the very least it seems fool hardy to dismiss the need for military strategy, when it was the efficacy of his military training and their martial culture that helped him have so much success.

Moreover, that removal of the Lamanite kings the missionaries converted set in motion a chain of events that helps to validate the offensive minded Nephite strategists. It says in Alma 24:1 that the Lamanites who hadn’t been converted were “stirred to anger” against those that were converted. In Alma 25:1 it then says the remaining Lamanites “swore vengeance” upon the Nephites. These are very simple explanations of Lamanite domestic and foreign politics. Mormon likely translated the political and historical foundations for the conflict into spiritual terms.[5] Those can remain valid and useful in spiritual terms, and we might also examine the text for political interpretations that can add nuance and depth. The spiritual success of Ammon and others removed both the head king and his son from their positions of power in Lamanite society.[6] The resulting vacuum created the political conditions for warfare. Scholars note that it was part of the Mesoamerican cult of war that a new king had to consolidate his legitimacy by winning in battle and sacrificing captives.[7]

The scramble for the kingship and the need for that new king to win a quick victory led directly to the city of Ammonihah. Mormon presented this as a just spiritual punishment for their wickedness against Alma and the members of the church. Yet, the account also includes “some from the borders of Noah” and “others” taken captive into the wilderness (Alma 16:3). Presumably, these were righteous members of Nephite society that didn’t deserve the same punishments as those in Ammonihah. Yet they were swept up in the Lamanite attack anyway. The account in Alma 16:8 said that the Nephites managed to retrieve the captives after a battle.

Alma 25 also recorded multiple battles (Alma 25:3) and the death of many Amulonites after their defeat in battle was presented by Mormon as the fulfillment as prophecy. But again, these battles weren’t bloodless, and meant that many Nephite soldiers died who presumably didn’t invite God’s wrath like the people of Ammonihah. Like the captives from the Land of Noah, these deaths could reasonably be considered innocent and needless because of the missionaries’ pacifistic refusal to fight preemptive war. Moreover, because they Nephites reacted to Lamanite aggression they likely out of position and without the element of surprise which made these battles tougher, and more bloody than they would be if the Nephites were prepared. For example, compared the desperate rush in Alma 2 to Moroni’s prepared ambush in Alma 43. The battles were in the same location, but Nephite preparation and surprise made the result far different. Just as the people of Zeniff likely learned, it was better and less bloody to fight a battle at a time and place of their choosing, then having to hastily form their own army (Alma 16:3), and then chase down or trap the Lamanites and recover innocent Nephite captives.

There is no promise that a preemptive strike to prevent later bloodshed would have been any better than attack on Ammonihah and the battles that resulted from missionary conversions. Yet Alma 47:2 says the Lamanites were afraid to mobilize against the Nephites because of their past defeats. The above consequences of missionary service that disrupted the Lamanite political realm combined with their trepidation in Alma 47:2 suggest Nephite strategists that argued for preemptive war could point to legitimate benefits and credibly argue that lives would be saved.

It remains tough to justify preemption based on what could happen, yet destruction of Ammonihah, the captives of Noah, and resulting reactive battles and death of blameless Nephite soldiers make a convincing case study which shows the disasters that await a nation when preemptive warfare is automatically disqualified.[8] The spiritual benefits of Ammon’s missionary work are undeniable, yet even the most benign results benefitted from martial methods, and they contained bloody consequences which suggests that preemptive war cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance author and providing ad free, high quality research takes time and effort. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below or you can buy one of my books using the author link in the top left of the page.

[1] Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, “Teaching about War in the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Matters Podcast, August 11th, 2016. (Accessed October 21st, 2106. )

[2] [1] Joshua Madsen, “A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, Richard Bushman eds, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015.) 24.

[3] William Hamblin, Brent Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon William Hamblin, Stephen Ricks eds, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS Press, 1991).

[4] Bruce Yerman, “Ammon and the Mesoamerican Custom of Smiting off Arms,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 8/1 (1999): 44-77, 78-79.

[5] Grant Hardy, “Mormon as Editor,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, Melvin Thorne and John Sorenson eds, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991,) 15-28.

[6] Jon Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: A Mesoamerican Book, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 363-365.

[7] Brant Gardner, “The Power of Context: Why Geography Matters,” Book of Mormon Archeological Forum, 2004.

[8] Morgan Deane, Offensive Warfare in the Book of Mormon and a Defense of the Bush Doctrine,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 38.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon: Part Two Omni 1 and Mosiah 9

This is the second part of a series. See part one, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven.

The very first instance of preemptive war occurs very shortly after the Nephites left the land of Nephi. They left in Omni 1:12, and by the end of the chapter they had already encountered “serious war and much bloodshed’ (Omni 1:24.) The most interesting verse for this study is Mosiah 9:1. Zeniff reported that he was sent as a spy that the Nephite armies might “come upon [the Lamanites] and destroy them.” Zeniff’s desire to spare them in the latter half of the verse suggests the attack was already decided upon, and they were identifying the best way to execute the strike. His account then already assumes that an army was gathered, equipped, trained, and an attack settled upon by leaders. Zeniff’s leadership of the scouting party, the account of his being learned in the language of the Nephites, and his later rescue by many friends and family, suggests he was an elite that may have taken part in the decision-making process. Besides the somewhat vague reference to serious war and bloodshed, there is no indication that this was a response to a series of attacks from Lamanites that required an offensive defensive strategy within a general defensive posture. This was simply a preemptive strike. The nature of this strike seemed so perfunctory to Zeniff, and Mormon who included Zeniff’s record, that there is no editorial comment condemning the launch of the attack. It is such an innocuous part of the story that it became part of the unspoken background of it.

His desire to abort the attack, his disagreement and subsequent fight with the Nephite leader becomes part an argument that places his righteous desire for peace against his “blood thirsty” and “austere” commander (Mosiah 9:2). Yet Zeniff quickly assured the reader that he was “over-zealous” (Mosiah 9:3), and perhaps unwise, in desiring to live peacefully next to the Lamanites. (His grandson quotes or seconds that idea in a speech to his then enslaved people [Mosiah 7:21].) Zeniff implied he was tricked by the “cunning” of the Lamanite King (Mosiah 9:10). Despite initially seeing the good in them, which made him want to abort the attack and resulted in blows over strategy, he foreshadowed the calamities of his decisions in verse 11 by citing rather typical ethnic stereotypes against the Lamanites and their desire to bring the people of the Zeniff into bondage (Mosiah 9:11.) His younger and more foolish self apparently had so much trust and so little cause to expect conflict that he didn’t build weapons or set guards (Mosiah 9:16, contrasted with Mosiah 10:1-2). He had to “invent” any manner of weapon (likely converted farming tools and hunting weapons) so his people could fight and only after the first battle did he make weapons and set guards. Eventually of course, the people of Limhi two generations later utterly failed to deliver themselves in three consecutive attacks (Mosiah 21:6, 7-8, 11-12), and ultimately needed divine intervention to escape their predicament.

All of this suggests a need to reassess both Zeniff’s description of the other Nephite commander as bloodthirsty and austere and the categorical dismissal of their attack. After all, Zeniff himself at least eventually came up with plenty of reasons why he was foolish, overzealous, and perhaps naïve, that we might consider he also repented of his decision to abort the attack on the Lamanites. This should have more weight because Zeniff was one of the few writers in the book to see the good in the Lamanites, but even he was quick to remind the reader of all his mistakes in judgement. Moreover, the colonists in subsequent generations were subjugated, and even believed that the Nephites had been exterminated (Mosiah 7:14). Arguably then, the other commander, who was initially called blood thirsty and austere, might have had a good argument that he was simply following a pre-approved and efficacious strategy to counter inevitable Lamanite aggression.

The Nephite leaders, Zeniff included, had plenty of reasons to believe the strategy had good merits. The failure to follow through with this attack led to all of the negative consequences above including defeat, subjugation, heavy taxation, failed counter attacks, and finally a need for divine rescue. Despite Zeniff opposing a “blood thirsty” leader the people of Limhi still had to fight. Having to fight anyway is bad enough, but because of their refusal to attack after Zeniff’s reconnoiter, they had to attack or try and break free of their slavery in much worse conditions. If Nephites were forced to fight and die anyway, it makes sense that it would have been more effective if they risked their lives when they had the advantage of a surprise attack and not the other way around (Mosiah 9:1 compared to v. 14). Zeniff’s regret over his actions and the desperate Nephite fights forced upon them, only in worse conditions after their aborted attack, combined with the lack of objection in the text suggests that this preemptive attack had a great deal of merit.

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Monday, October 28, 2019

Take Up Arms and Destroy or Be Smitten Against the Wall: Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon, Part 1

 Part 1:


The defensive stance of the Nephites combined with the several verses that seem to forbid offensive war have created a generally accepted position on warfare in the Book of Mormon as one that supports defensive and forbids offensive warfare. In modern discussion of the topic various scholars have noted, there is an almost “demonic hatred” of preventive war, and a “reproach without evidence” style to condemning those who supported the Iraq war, or the use of military force in general. Using additional and under studied verses this paper examines the Nephite use of preemptive warfare and finds that the practice was both common and justified, had dubious effectiveness, and doesn’t warrant the strident attacks against advocates of the strategy.

[This is the first of a seven part series. See part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven.]

Helaman chapter 1 starkly illustrates the difficulty of judging the merits of preemptive war. In Helaman 1:7 the Nephites seized Paanchi when he was only “about” to flatter the people in pursuit of the Chief Judgeship. The text doesn’t state exactly how much he had done to warrant arrest and execution, but it does repeat the word “about” and his arrest and execution suggests a serious threat. The attempt of his supporters to save him catalyzed the Gadianton insurgency and the preemptive seizure of Paanchi likely fueled their sense of injustice.[1] This example is one of many that suggest a Nephite tendency to preemptively deal with threats to their power. Given the many invasions and threats they faced, the Nephite decision makers had ample evidence to justify their aggressive preemptive tactics. After all, in the same chapter in which they seized Paanchi, the Nephites lost the capital to an army led by a dissenter, under a king who was the son of a dissenter. The two examples, one a caution and one a justification for preemptive action in Helaman 1 shows readers that the line between possibly unrighteous preventive action to take up arms and destroy and fleeing the capital and being smitten against the wall because of inaction is thinner than many Latter Day Saints believe. Using additional and under studied verses as well as a reassessment of commonly (over)used verses for and against the practice this paper examines the Nephite use of preemptive warfare and finds that the practice was both common and justified, had dubious effectiveness, and doesn’t warrant the strident attacks against advocates of the strategy.

The scriptures on the matter are more plentiful than commonly thought but the terminology is contested and a basic knowledge of the difference will help the discussion here. Preemptive war is defined as the initiation of hostilities to defend against imminent or ongoing attacks. Preventive war in contrast, is seen as an attack against threats that are less imminent and are often seen as a war of choice or even of aggression. The difference between the two, though, is largely dependent on the perceived imminence of the attacks. The less imminent the threat, the more preventive, optional, and unjust the war appears to be. This paper uses the term preemptive war instead of preventive war. I tend to agree with Victor David Hanson’s analysis which states that definition of imminent is often in the eye of the beholder and the difference between the two is contested to the point of becoming moot. (As I’ll discuss below, modern technology and weapons further reduces the difference.) With contested definitions the wars become defined not by clinical accuracy, but by the degree to which the person or nation supported or opposed the war to begin with.[2] Since most of the literature on Book of Mormon warfare discusses preemptive warfare, and the difference between the more justified preemptive war, and the less moral preventive war, is incredibly thin and contested, I will stick with the term preemptive war throughout the paper, though I acknowledge that at least some of the Nephite behavior could better fit the preventive definition.[3]

The Book of Mormon presents these preemptive and possibly preventive wars without editorial comment, and thus it seems like simply another strategy used in defending the Nephite realm. The only editorial comment from Mormon is against the blood lust and spiritual decay of those waging war or describes the ineffectiveness of the strategy in a particular instance, and not against the strategy itself. This is important, as preemptive wars are usually presented as morally necessary, but incredibly rare, and the Bush administration and those who supported that strategy are accused of the less morally permissible preventive war. As Colin Gray and Duance Boyce have noted, there is an almost “demonic hatred” of preventive war, and a “reproach without evidence” style to condemning those who supported the Iraq war, or the use of military force in general.[4] Thus, in addition to studying this practice among the Nephites, this piece acts as an important reexamination of what the book says about preemptive war and suggests the moral outrage against it is misplaced.

[1] Morgan Deane, “Climbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon”, Provo FAIR Presentation, August 4th, 2016.

[2] See Victor David Hanson, “Epaminondas the Theban and the Doctrine of Preemptive War,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy Victor David Hanson ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 100-103.

[3] Chris Brown said that the distinction between preventive and preemptive war "is difficult to sustain under twenty-first century conditions.” In Chris Brown, “After ‘Caroline’: NSS 2002, practical judgement, and the politics and ethics of preemption,” in The Ethics of Preventive War, Deen K. Chatterjee ed., (Cambridge University Press: 2013), 28.

[4] Duance Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 171-173. Colin Gray, The Implications of Preemptive and Preventive War Doctrines: A Reconsideration, (Strategic Studies Institute Online, 2007), 28. : For a representative sample of the most extreme and unacademic versions, see Kendal Anderson, War: A Book of Mormon Perspective: How the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon Warn Against Wars of Aggression and the Warfare State, (Create Space, 2014), 21 where “evil power hungry dictators” are the only ones that start preemptive war, and page 42 where he calls the practice an “assault on humanity itself.” For a sample of the voluminous personal attacks on proponents of the practice, Irvin Hill wrote, “A writer proving the Book of Mormon defense of Preemptive war, or just another war mongering propagandist?,” Obedient Anarchy, January 28th, 2015. (Accessed, October 21st, 2019 )

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Enos and the Trickster God: Mormon Theology Seminar 2020

Huehecoyotl from Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Enos knew that “God could not lie” (Enos 1:6) and therefore his guilt over his sins was swept away. Bearing testimony of a God that doesn’t lie suggests the possibility of gods that did lie. Assuming the possibility of trickster gods that Enos encountered in society at large, or maybe believed in during a rebellious phase, and which would make him want a remission of his sins when he came back, brings additional insights the life of Enos, his encounter with God, and provides insights in Nephite and Lamanite societies as well.

Because trickster gods are common throughout different cultures in different times it possible that Nephite culture responded to and interacted with these belief systems. Enos’ initial impulse was seeking forgiveness for his sins. Understanding the trickster gods might help us understand what sins bothered him. The Aztec god Huehuecóyotl for example was often a symbol for indulgence and male sexuality which suggests the sins of Enos could have been sexual in nature. It’s possible that Enos indulged in his youth in sexual proclivities much like Corianton from later in Nephite history (Alma 39).[1]

In another text, much like the Greek gods Huehuecoyotl fomented wars between humans to relieve his boredom.[2] This is rather insightful because as the faith of Enos increased, or “began to be unshaken” (Enose 1:11), the God who couldn’t lie explained his just reasons for blessing the Nephites with protection, and God then explained the reasons they would forfeit that right. Both reasons are based on the people adhering to covenants in contrast to the capriciousness of a trickster God. Perhaps during his sojourn among other gods or disbelief in God Enos started to think, like the fictional character Romeo, that they were simple fools of fortune or a trickster god (Romeo and Juliet III.1). The desire for God’s promised protection of the Nephites suggests the possibly precarious state of Nephite affairs in this period and the seeds for their eventual exit from the land of Nephi.

The Navajo Coyoteway ceremony is particularly insightful as well. In the ceremony the ritual singer acts as a mediator between the trickster God and the people who offended him.[3] During his prayer Enos acted as a mediator for his people, praying for their welfare (1:9) and the perseveration of their records (1:16) from the hatred of the Lamanites. The Nephites had a knowledge of Moses, and presumably his intercession for the children of Israel which could mean that Enos was applying one or both of several to his specific circumstances. 

The Lamanite behavior also has some possible relation to the trickster god. In the usual ethno centric description given by the Nephites of a wild people dwelling in tents and eating the flesh of wild beasts, Enos mentions that they were a short “skin girdle” (Enos 1:20). While not explicitly mentioned, the visual image of wearing the skins of creatures could recall the priests of trickster gods that often wore animal pelts that represented their gods and who were both feared and revered among ancient people.  

The Ekeko character from South Ande tribes and the Kokopelli both represented trickster gods from afar that came bearing important messages. The importance of this trait could be that Enos used the concept of messages from the trickster gods, as something that was familiar to him and would make an easier transition back to praying to the God who couldn’t lie.[4] Kokopelli is often depicted with a prominent phallus which again connects to the possible sexual sin of Enos which would have created strong motivation and desire for the remission of his sins. Kokopelli’s petroglyphs as a hunchback flute player remains in many caves today which provide vivid physical reminders of locations where ancients would tell stories or perhaps pray all night around a camp fire.

Examining the Book of Enos and the God who couldn’t lie as a response to trickster gods seen throughout ancient societies gives us tantalizing hints into the sins of Enos, the way God interacts with his people through righteous judgement, possible Nephite politics and Lamanite material culture, and the way trickster beliefs like intercession and messages from afar may have influenced Nephite religious leaders. 

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[3] Karl W. Luckert and Johnny C. Cooke, Navajo Interpreter, COYOTEWAY: A Navajo Holyway Healing Ceremonial, University of Arizona Press, 1979.
[4] Young, John V. Kokopelli: Casanova of the Cliff Dwellers: The Hunchbacked Flute Player. Palmer Lake, Colorado: Filter Press 1990.