Thursday, November 2, 2017

How Do You Read the Scriptures: A Case Study

There is a particularly evocative verse in the Book of Helaman, starting in chapter 10 it reads:

15 And it came to pass that when Nephi had declared unto them the word, behold, they did still harden their hearts and would not hearken unto his words; therefore they did revile against him, and did seek to lay their hands upon him that they might cast him into prison.
16 But behold, the power of God was with him, and they could not take him to cast him into prison, for he was taken by the Spirit and conveyed away out of the midst of them.
17 And it came to pass that thus he did go forth in the Spirit, from multitude to multitude, declaring the word of God, even until he had declared it unto them all, or sent it forth among all the people.

What makes it evocative for me is the multiple interpretations of this scripture that are possible. With an increasing discussion of good and bad apologetics, the release of the excellent Greg Kofford volume on the subject, (with accompanying drama) Andrew's excellent post, and the continuing debate over methods, this set of scriptures can act as a good case study in how you might read the scriptures.

What follows is a short list of how different readers my read the passage, including the one that most closely aligns with my view.  (There are certain limits and dangers in using labels, but as anybody who has ever tried to cook dinner after their child pulled off all the labels of their kitchen products, they still matter. If you have a better label please feel free to mention it in the comments below.)

Average Orthodox:

The text records exactly what happened in history. The Book of Mormon is the most correct book on this Earth. The people who read this way assume the text is what God wanted. People from this category in other religions would use the phrase “God Breathed” to describe the text without knowing much about its production history.

The person from this category would believe this event happened exactly as written. You could even write some sort of ad libbed homiletic commentary heard in Sunday School: Isn’t it (wonderful/amazing/) that (Deity) choose to (verb, double points for “show His love”) by (event just discussed in scripture.)

Critical historical:

This is a type of reading that accepts the Book of Mormon as historical. The Nephites and Lamanites existed in a time and place, but the text, like all historical documents shows the bias and weakness of the author.  Instead of assuming the characters behaved exactly as written, the figures were nuanced and real. This means the Nephites were selfish, sought power and influence, clannish, and had what modern readers would call ethno centric and even racist views of their neighbors. Readers that follow this style know that Moroni was portrayed as a hero but often created as many problems as he solved with his aggressive tactics, indefinite detention of prisoners(Alma 51:19; Alma 62:4), and poison they made the Lamanites try (Alma 55:30-31); while Amalickiah is portrayed as the villain but might have  had some legitimate complaints. I described how reading with critical eye can change the text in Record Keeping Magic.

Individuals with this mindset in other religions probably read middle brow archaeological magazines from decent, if heavily biased Christian scholars. They have read Dever’s book placing the Bible in history, and have a pretty good knowledge of forms and poetry that enhance their appreciation of the text.  They can give the same homilies in Sunday School as the average orthodox member, but they also like to mention the chiasms that enhance the teaching about the atonement, and the social commentary the sermon provided.

In reading this story they might suggest that the Roman’s had a special pathway that led from the barracks straight into the temple to disrupt potential civil unrest.  Perhaps similar to the folk lore from Hebrew history that got included in scripture, and using the example of the Roman soldiers, Nephi's miraculous saving by the Spirit could be described as an intervention by a friendly governor.  The same governor(s) to whom the people indirectly pleaded with Nephi in Helaman 11:8.  (“The people began to plead with their…leaders that they would say to Nephi,” which suggests he was sequestered somewhere safe.)

The Big Picture View:

These people don’t get hung up on the historicity of the Book of Mormon. They could be simply agnostic on the subject, or actively reject the concept due to a graduate program in Biblical Archaeology, other advance training, or just because they never did get the strong impression the text reflects history.  (Unlike the members of the Orthodox category, they notice that the face value descriptions of characters read like a bad novel.) In other religions these would be individuals that don’t care as much about the archaeological magazines from nuanced historical group, but instead focus on what kinds of charities and outreach their church does, and the application of the loving verses in the Bible.

These individuals would probably think that the naturalistic explanation from the above category is straining too much. They would likely say that the story is beautiful, and as they prayed about the text to help them get closer to Christ, it did, and that’s all that matters. They see the text as a helpful agent in getting close to God, and even in staying simpatico with the church. They would have a difficult time in Sunday School, but some brave souls make it work and provide good big picture ideas about improving a person’s life, and improving their relationship with their fellow man.
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These are pretty broad categories that describe what I’ve seen in apologetics. I make no claims to this being exhaustive and I still need to read the rest of the excellent new Kofford volume on the subject.  But I do think that examining one scripture using these different methods helps to crystallize the key concepts and bring new understanding between the groups. As the drama continues on facebook between the different groups it would help to pause and consider how much of it might be based on different reading styles, and not because the people with that style are wicked.
  • What kind of reading do you do?
  • What kind of readings did I miss?
  • What would you add or subtract to these categories?
  • How do these categories apply to possible apologetic arguments? For example, if somebody cares about the big picture, would describing how something could be history really help or matter?
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Friday, October 20, 2017

On Mental Gymnastics

I don't think the anger comes out of a desire to see the church disappears. In my case is more the aghast and shocking reaction to the mental gymnastics that that nuanced members have to do to justify the historical problems particularly. In my mind and in the minds of many exmos there is no "perfectly rational and intellectual defense of all historical problems ". I see it as people clinging desperately to Mormonism and for many of us is not something worth clinging to. To many of us the evidence against the church is much more black and white and damning.  I feel like I'm speaking to a truther or a anti vaxers when I hear some of the justifications for belief by the nuanced crowd. (In the comments here) https://www.facebook.com/randall.bowen.315/posts/530303953981179

I see the term “mental gymnastics” a great deal. Gymnasts are well trained athletes that must put thousands of hours into their craft just for entry level competition, and Olympic athletes dedicate vast sums of time and effort to training.  I’m often bemused by the term, as though being a mental couch potato is better. When the critics use that term they aren’t comparing apologists to dedicated athletes, nor are they praising mental laziness, so obviously something else is going on. Based on my research into the use of words as insults, I think critics use the term as shorthand for deceptive and straining arguments while trying to turn the academic debate upside down.


The important connotation with words like mental gymnasts is the contortions that the gymnast must perform. The critics imply that church members must go through all sorts of crazy contortions in order to support the truth. The critic in contrast, can point to their simple narrative as the correct position that doesn’t need explanation. With an increasing discussion of good and bad apologetics, the release of the excellent Greg Kofford volume in the subject, and continuing debate over its methods, the term seems like a particularly egregious, gutter style tactic.

Those who have dealt with critics have probably heard this narrative. The critics enjoy telling stories of vast million people Jewish American tribes that rode Tapirs into battle and came over on submarines while not leaving a trace of evidence. Joseph smith made it up as he went along, and so on. (As you can tell, I tend to focus on the Book of Mormon so I hear way more of those lousy narratives than the Joseph Smith/ church history ones.)

What the critics are doing is somewhat sophisticated. I say somewhat because I doubt that it is deliberate in most cases. As we might see in statements like "Bush lied and people died," its quite common in political arguments to shape the conversation (or figurative battlefield more often), using loaded terms.  (The phrase is loaded, because it assumes that Bush deliberately lied and simply wasn't mistaken.)

I first noticed this trend in the Book of Mormon. In my first book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents, I wrote how “robber” was one of these terms. Throughout history the term was used by various historians to describe what called objectively be called the private armies of individuals. But in situation where the government power was deteriorating the distinction between legitimate agents of the government collecting taxes and ruffians robbing the people became blurry. Hence the term robber could be used against agents of the government, rebels could be called terrorists, terrorists could call themselves freedom fighters, and so on.

The term genocide, terrorist, war monger, and even liberal and conservative on occasion are used more often for their pejorative and emotional value than clinical accuracy. These terms shift the debate and put the other party on defense, and even clouds the debate with the FOG of war. (Fear obligation guilt.) Politicians that oppose war feel obligated to reaffirm their patriotism. Those that want to use western land have to wade through guilt inducing narratives from Native Americans and so on. And in the game of politics, the simpler argument usually wins.

In the case of the Book of Mormon or other apologetic endeavors, the rhetorical maneuvers actually make an intense study of a topic into something negative. Apologetics seems to be the only field where random memes and face value impressions seem to count more than diligent and thoughtful research.  If you disagree with my assessment, try to make an argument about chariots or horses in the Book of Mormon, or a nuanced historical assessment of Smith's marriages to a critic and let the ridicule flow. They preemptively dismiss the idea that translations might be loose, loan words used, history is complicated with incomplete sources, and that the etymology of words allows for alternative interpretations of chariot. (In my study of Chinese, the two character word for palanquin chair uses the primitive for chariot.)   Using this technique a mocking comment about submarines counts more than sophisticated insights gleaned ancient seafaring practices.  A meme of an Indian being pulled by on a sled by chariots, and other mocking items counts more than a thoughtful study of translations and cross cultural contact.

I'm particularly annoyed by the mocking based on numbers. One of the first tasks undertaken by professional historians such as Hans Delbruck included a reassessment of numbers. Unscientific methods of counting, unreliable reports, mistakes in translation, and deliberate exaggeration to prove a moral point are all perfectly acceptable ways to understand and amend our understanding of battle numbers. Doubting large numbers is also a favorite historical past time, from the Battle of Fei River to the size of Hangzhou, the histories of China have often been disputed as fantasy.  (I especially like to point out Marco Polo's description of unicorns. Its plain to modern readers that he simply got it wrong and they are rhinos, but seeing critics explain away the obvious application regarding the naming of animals is too fun. That is some gymnastics worth watching.)

In short then, a discussion of wrong numbers is not only appropriate, its almost one of the first tools developed by modern historians. (I have a chapter in my next book about numbers, and you can previews here and here.) The contrast between the diligent study put into the text, and the seeming ease with which critics dismiss it with a way of their hand makes me feel a good deal like Dr. Evil,  and that I didn't go to six years of school just to called Mr., thank you very much.

The face value reading of something matters. Strong impressions are vital, and it's possible to connect those impressions to Moroni's promise. But face also has the same Latin route as the word superficial. Assuming that a chariot has to mean whatever was seen in Ben Hur is not a proper way to read and understand a text.  I'm often bemused at how cavalier members and critics can be with something that is supposed to be a sacred text. Without getting into a long discussion of the various deficiencies of the church's scripture study program, and the critics have their own issues as well, if a member believes that something is scripture they should be willing to dive deeply into the text's possible literary styles, allusions, patterns, historical antecedents, possible cultural comparisons, moral messages, and doctrinal exposition. In short, while critics use the term mockingly, I think we should be mental gymnasts instead of couch potatoes when it comes to our scriptures.  The current use and acceptance of “mental gymnastics” is a way to delegitimize substantive Mormon arguments, solidify their own (often shallow or deliberately obtuse) interpretations of the text, and they do so often unwittingly using a cliché term.
  • Upon reflection, are there any terms that you might use which that are emotionally charged and used to shape the conversation?
  • This post doesn’t mean to imply that every apologetic argument is good simply based on its complexity or number of footnotes. What are some legitimately bad apologetic arguments that stretch to reach a conclusion?
  • What was the most annoying conversation you had with a critic (or apologist)?
  • What is the difference between a nuanced and valid argument, and mental gymnastics that reconciles at any cost? Can you provide examples?
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Monday, October 9, 2017

Reassessing History on Columbus Day

This is the my most recent publication from Opslens. I published between two and four articles a week on that site so if you like my writing make sure to check it regularly. I reprint items of particular importance here. 

Politicians and activists complain that Columbus Day celebrates the genocide of Native Americans. This evokes a good deal of emotion and the idea of genocide is often discussed around Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, but it’s also brought up in various contemporary political debates. Yet the use of the term genocide is not accurate. It contorts the definition of genocide, uses it for its emotional value, and obscures the historical nature of European and Native American interaction.

The death of so many Native American was tragic, and certainly judging by today’s standards the Europeans who killed them were racist. That reasoning uses the presentism fallacy, which judges past figures based on modern notions of morality. I like to remind liberals that the Barack Obama of 2013 held a position on gay marriage that the modern left would find incredibly offensive and homophobic.

If one of the primary leaders of the left held a position just five years ago that is considered wrong today, it can be expected that people from 500 years ago certainly did. But it was the introduction of deadly diseases into Native American cultures that killed far more natives in a quicker time than most other causes, yet this was not a deliberate and diabolical plan of Europeans. There was no germ warfare against the natives, just tragic cross-cultural contact.

The natives didn’t have the same political race consciousness that modern people do. Many Native American tribes actually fought on the side of Europeans against other tribes. The Aztec practice of human sacrifice both angered and frightened their neighbors who quickly joined Cortez. In fact, not only did natives join European fights, but some scholars such as Ross Hassig posit that the natives actually used the Europeans to settle their political scores. The Five Nations of the Iroquois joined the British to fight the Americans, and the French and Indian War featured natives allied with the French.

If we are to believe the modern political arguments, these were race traitors serving foreign masters in their own destruction. In reality, each tribe acted independently according to their best interests, which sometimes meant allying with Europeans and exterminating bordering native tribes. Many tribes such as the Plains Cree and Comanche established their own empires in the West by subjugating, killing, and enslaving their Indian neighbors. The concept of noble Native Americans fighting the rapacious white men is a modern invention, often used to inspire guilt in political opponents (like the mayor of San Juan did last week), but doesn’t accurately reflect history.


In addition to the Europeans having native allies and vice versa, the Europeans themselves were not a monolithic whole. The Conquistadors just happened to be the most fanatic religionists from Europe that encountered an empire with some of the continent’s bloodiest rituals. Their reaction doesn’t mean every other European power acted the same way. In fact, the Spanish rulers outlawed slavery, and there were many Spanish monks that spent their entire lives ministering to the Indians, learning their ways, providing medical care, and writing down their customs.

The actions of the 16th century Spanish should be separated from 19thcentury Americans. There was not an organized and systematic campaign that called for their extermination similar to Hitler or Milosevic. In contrast to Nazis and Serbian killing squads, the fall of natives in America was a series of sad events over 500 years that resulted in their current situation.

The Spanish were religious zealots, different from the French whose search for furs led to excessive hunting, and both were different from the English who wanted valuable farming lands. Whenever two people come into contact they have a series of mutually inspired changes and responses. The Europeans established missions or trading posts, or planted new crops. Some groups of natives adopted horses and used gunpowder (and often used those items to exterminate neighboring tribes). Different groups of people interacted with others differently depending on their wants and needs.

Unfortunately, the loss of population from disease and the superior numbers of sedentary farmers compared to semi nomadic hunters meant that the Europeans pushed out native cultures. This trend accelerated in the North American West after the American Civil War due to the railroad. But even then it was not a monolithic and organized campaign of extermination, just the extension and sad conclusion of centuries of interaction.

All of these reasons mean that term genocide is used because of its emotional value and not because of its accuracy. Many of the modern users of the word have a much politicized version of history that generally views dead white men as the villains. This over-politicization is misguided on several fronts. In addition to the needless simplification of history described above, the concept of whiteness is extremely fluid.

For example, when Southern and Eastern Europeans migrated in large numbers in the late 19th century, Americans reacted with fear and horror that their country was being taken over by dark skinned Italians, Spaniards, and Poles who had values that were not compatible with Western ideals. But Columbus the Italian and Cortez the Spaniard are the individuals that first started this supposed genocide. In other words, they weren’t white enough to settle in the USA during the late 19th century, but liberal academics believe the 16th century Spanish and Italians were the epitome of white when they supposedly started the genocide against the natives.

The Native Americans can point to a long list of unfortunate events and even abuses. Their plight throughout the years has often been incredibly tragic. They lost huge numbers of people to disease the first few generations after contact with the Europeans. They were also part of a competition between and among nations that included natives allying with the Europeans and vice versa. The attacks on the natives were part of a rather common pattern of warfare that Europeans used against each other, and that the natives used among and between each other.

So, on the next Columbus day, call for indigenous day, or politicized racial attack on white people, it’s important not to be afraid of the political cudgel of misused history, but to respond with a nuanced and thorough understanding of it that says this was not genocide against Native Americans and that there is plenty to celebrate about Columbus.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Record Keeping Magic

[I'm starting a new position as a permablogger at Wheat and Tares. I've gusted posted there on and off over the years and they are trying to expand their offering. I've found they are a receptive and mostly positive audience to my ideas. As a result, most of these posts are also cross posted over there and they might add some background you've already heard.]

I’ve been operating a blog, Warfare in the Book of Mormon for the better part of a decade now. The most fruitful approach I’ve taken over the last several years is to read the text a bit more critically. This is only a blog so I won’t get into the methodological weeds, but I think the good guys aren’t as good as we think, and the bad guys aren’t’ always as bad.  There is a FAIR conference talk about ten years ago that talked about not having a testimony of the history of the church. This means that while the gospel is true, the history of the church is complicated, nuanced, grey, and not nearly as black and white as many members assume.  As I’ve taken this same approach to the Book of Mormon and tried to examine how the Nephites might not have been as noble and pure as the narrative implies, I’ve noticed that the Nephite record keepers are great magicians.

As Grant Hardy intimated in his book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, sometimes the text omits key material, or includes other material that essentially distracts from uncomfortable implications. He points out Nephi’s return with the brass plates. The narrative skips over’s Lehi’s reaction to instead include a rather rare example of a women speaking and complaining in the text. (1 Nephi 5:1-9) Hardy’s analysis uses that unusual inclusion plus the resulting peace offering to suggest that Lehi didn’t approve of Nephi slaying Laban. The Nephite record keepers use emotionally based language such as this to make the reader see what they want you to see, and ignore the context, implications, and unintended consequences detailed within the text.  This post briefly (as possible) looks at three examples that illustrate these magic tricks.
The burning of Sanjo Palace in Medieval Japan. I like this picture because the Samurai are often viewed as these noble Knight like individuals and even became the basis for the Jedi. But in this battle they burned the palace, and then killed all of the survivors as they fled. You can see a decapitation in the center of the picture. Historical reality is different than the often idealized views of the past. 


This land is my land 

The first example might sound a bit familiar. Last time I posted a dramatized account of Moroni’s army sweeping out the Lamanites in Alma 50:9.  They likely didn’t issue a 30 day eviction notice and do so with a regard for Lamanite civil liberties. In fact, while it’s not recorded in the text I bet they used many of their ethnocentric descriptions of Lamanites to justify their action (see the next section).  The Lamanites are dark, loathsome, bloodthirsty, and wild people while the Nephites will bring the light of Christ and civilization to the region.

In fact, the magic trick then becomes the very long discussion of how happy and secure this made the Nephites. Instead of considering how the Nephites may not have been Christlike to their neighbors, how they exercised naked power against their ethnic rivals, and how those refugees likely enhanced Amalickiah’s arguments about Nephite perfidy the chapter discusses how secure they were. Verse 12 discussed “the assurance of protection” offered by new lands, and waxed eloquent about how happy and blessed the people were until finally in v 23. the text says that there “was never a happier time” among the people.

Yet, just a few verses later, in the same chapter, Morianton does the same thing as Moroni and is defeated by Moroni (v.26-36)!  Instead of receiving praise, Morianton’s people taking up arms is presented in stark and dangerous terms. There was a “warm contention,” and Moroni was afraid the people of Bountiful would side with Morianton in the dispute (Alma 50:32.)  But instead of concentrating how the people of Lehi likely presented a one sided account of the conflict, and how naturally fearful anybody would be of Moroni, the text instead becomes a morality tale as Morianton beat one his servants. Morianton didn’t immediately chase his servant which suggests the possibility that she often ran away and then came back.  But this time she went to Moroni who then found significant moral authority to deal with Morianton.

This moral authority was needed because Morianton was simply doing the same thing that Moroni did a few verses earlier. But Morianton had the negatives of possible being an ethnic minority (because of the Jaredite root ending in his name), driving out Nephite settlers instead of Lamanites, and having the survivors flee to Moroni’s camp.  This is the second magic trick in this story.  In addition to ignoring the consequences of preemptive action seizing land and creating refugees, Morianton couldn’t do the same thing because he was morally corrupt and seditious.

Praiseworthy Bloodthirstiness


The next piece of magic again comes squeezed within a good deal of happy talk. After Nephi and Lehi preach to Lamanites, are encircled by fire, and have massive conversions, there is a stunning change in affairs. Suddenly there is peace, harmony, increased trade, and righteousness throughout the first part of Helaman chapter 6. Yet not all is good because the Gadianton robbers are still active (and we’ll get to that part of the story in a minute.)  

From a spiritual standpoint this is a great story, but conversion also results in societal changes as well. I discuss the historical incidents using examples from European history where I describe how conversion is crown deep. There are numerous benefits that range from added political power, top down government control, additional tools of statecraft, diplomatic benefits that include being part of the Christian club of nations. The conversion of Lithuania is a good case study for seeing all of these trends but for brevity I will focus on the diplomatic benefits.

In Helaman 6:20 the Lamanites are praised for using “every means” to “destroy” the Gadianton Robbers, which might be the only time in the scriptures their martial activities are praised. When the Lamanites are not part of the club they are described a wild, ferocious, bloodthirsty, barbarous, cruel, hardened and a plundering people (Enos 1:20, Mosiah 10:12 Alma 17:14 Alma 48:24). These are typical ethnic stereotypes of the other, but amazingly they disappeared when the Lamanites convert and fought the Gadianton Robbers. When the Lamanite Christians later became Nephites in order to fight the robbers in 3rd Nephi 2:12-16 their kids also became white!  Fighting satanic pagans under the banner of Christ gets you a good amount of praise from the recording historian (Mormon) as those fighters suddenly become part of the club. This piece of magic is consistent with historical practice and particularly prominent when the historian has a religious background.  

Wicked Chief Judge- Worst thing ever or minor inconvenience?

The final example comes from involves the Chief Judge. In Alma 46 changing a few laws is presented as a grave threat to liberty and resulted in rather passionate prayer, prophecy (and militarization) by Moroni. The Title of Liberty is praised in the most heroic terms. Nonviolent advocates like Jana Reiss and Joshua Madsen have called him a military “stud muffin” and “action hero”. His words helped me get through Marine Corps boot camp and many uncomfortable nights in the field, (at the risk of confirming stereotypes) during my mission in Texas I went to military compounds that quoted and framed the Title of Liberty on their gate, and the Frieberg painting was prominently displayed in my step dad’s office when he was company commander of the 82nd Airborne. This action was seen as a valiant defense of liberty but the magical description of the powerful Moroni obscures unintended consequences and contrasts with Helaman 6:39 and the trial of where Nephites lost control of the government with little more than a shrug and a whimper.
Just like the refugees created in Alma 50, after the Title of Libety the fleeing men of Amalickiah likely had much more ammunition to spin a tale in front of the Lamanites. He likely didn’t have to exaggerate much to imply that Moroni was an aggressive and dangerous leader.  Nothing says freedom for example like forcing people to support it at sword point (Alma 46:36). Historically failed revolts lands resulted in confiscated lands that were then distributed. Considering the high cost of equipping Nephites with new game changing armor,[1] I wonder if lands were taken or very least a heavy tax levied to support this move. Not only were Kingmen forced to support liberty at sword point, but they likely had to literally pay for it too. This seems like a good case of blowback if there ever was one, and it happened without anybody noticing because we get such warm fuzzies reading about the Title of Liberty.   

Moreover, when the Gadianton Robbers did obtain “sole management” of the government in Helaman 6:39, they were described in the worst terms. Mormon claims the Robbers did “no justice” in the land. They punished the poor because they were poor and allowed the rich to go free so they could go on whore mongering and killing (Helaman 7:4-5). 

Yet, one of the few detailed examples of their justice we have is actually fairly evenhanded. After Nephi prophesied of the murder of another chief judge he was arrested as part of the conspiracy.  They managed to arrest Nephi, an extremely vocal critic of the government, conduct an investigation, and then release him without any indication from the record that he was mistreated.  Nephi didn’t have his lands seized (like the Nephites did to the Lamanites in Alma 50 or possibly the Kingmen in Alma 46), as Nephi apparently maintained his residence in the capital city. Nephi wasn’t indefinitely detained before finally being executed like the Nephites did to their vocal critics during the great war (Alma 51:19; Alma 62:9).  Despite being a vociferous critic of an evil government that he says is inspired by Satan, Nephi received a fair amount of what we would call due process.  Of course, Nephi’s son did have an execution date set. And as a leader of a major or dominant religion, Nephi may have been too big to jail.  Yet this example is still illustrative of how losing control of the government wasn’t the world ending result, especially when we might infer even worse about the supposedly righteous rule of Nephites.

Nephite leaders preemptively seized a perceived threat against the government in Helaman 1, where the person’s sole crime seemed to be just thinking about flattering the people. That could have seemed like a decent reaction based on the chaos caused by other dissenters. But even King Mosiah had to plead to the people that they had no right to “destroy” his son Aaron should he reassert his right to the throne and spark a civil war (Mosiah 29:8), so it seems like a pretty common response that even applied to repentant missionaries. Reading John Welch’s, Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon, shows us that Alma the Younger had to be very creative in his sentence and execution of Nehor, which still inflamed sectarian conflict.[2]  There are many more examples we could infer about the injustice of the Nephites. Daniel Belnap for example, wrote a very good article detailing the strife and “stumbling block” that unrighteous and unjust actions of Nephites caused in the 18th year of the reign of the judges.[3] 

Helaman’s servant stabbed an assassin after nighttime spying (Helaman 2:6), and Nephi exposed another killer in Helaman 9:6. Lawyers and leaders within the Nephite nation were known to beat confessions out of criminals (Alma 14:17-22), and both Lamanites and Nephties attempted to poison each other with wine (Alma 55:13). Of course the beatings to get confessions were committed by unrighteous figures from the wicked city of Ammonihah. Though its important to note that no beatings were recorded during the period the robbers had “sole management” of the government. The Nephites even tested the wine on their prisoners first (Alma 55: 31-32)! Jailing the prophet for a bit in connection to a murder that he just predicated, hardly seems like the government of Satan, and seems comparatively better than some of the actions by righteous figures. Yet again, few readers notice because the Title of Liberty and preaching and prophecy of Nephi distract from that comparison and contrast.

Conclusion

The Book of Mormon is a complex book. Suggesting that the Nephites are unrighteous might be upsetting to some people. After I gave presented at the FAIR conference I got some strong rebukes by people quoting scripture suggesting that I was completely wrong in my reading. This analysis is admittedly speculative, but it’s no less so than the Heartland kooks that probably dominate your Sunday School.  This approach gives us the benefit of treating Mormon as a real person and historian with tension between the spiritual and history in his book. As Michael Austin said the last time this controversy arose, many members insist the book is historical, but then read the text as though it’s a bad novel or propaganda. If the Nephites were real people then they were self-interested just like everybody else in history, and particularly the children of Israel. As a result their record keeping shows the same techniques used by other ancient historians. They liked power and prosperity, and they wrote their history the same way others did. So their culture was seen as better, the “others” were seen as wicked, losing power to wicked individuals was the worst, and making smart moves to consolidate their power was wise. The Nephites were not cardboard cut outs, but acted like people throughout history, moving through a fallen and difficult world the best they can.

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[1] Alma 43:19-21 suggest the armor was enough to scare away the Lamanites, and they blame their defeat on it 44:9). We don’t know the exact material. Large metal was not feasible in Mesoamerica at this time, and the Limhites brought back a large piece of armor because apparently it was rare. But it was heavier and enough to tip the balance of power.
[2] John Welch, Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2008), The Trial of Nehor.  
[3] Dan Belnap “And it came to pass . . .”: The Sociopolitical Events in the Book of Mormon Leading to the Eighteenth Year of the Reign of the Judges Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 2014 (23): 101-139