Friday, June 26, 2020

Approaching Nephite Thought on Warfare

Military history is more than battles. The extensive war campaigns and drama surrounding those battles tend to promote a great deal of writing them. But warfare is also how societies conceptualize warfare, and leaders justify it. I was doing the Come Follow Me readings and found very interesting verses at the end of Jacob. I have already discussed Jacob’s futile victory before, but I think these two short verses in Jacob set a template for how later Nephite leaders justified warfare.

Jacob 7:24-25-

And it came to pass that many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually. 
Wherefore, the people of Nephi did fortify against them with their arms, and with all their might, trusting in the God and rock of their salvation; wherefore they became as yet, conquerors of their enemies.
Verse 24 starts with a discussion of Nephite “means” to “reclaim and restore” the Lamanites. These are interesting verb choices that most likely reflect the difference between Aaron and Ammon’s missionary service. Compare Alma 17 where Ammon becomes a servant of the king, sets a good example, and then preaches; with Aaron’s attempt to preach in the synagogues of Jerusalem in chapter 21. It might also refer to activities like the prayer of Enos for the sake of his brethren. 

But those are futile because of the “eternal” hatred of the Lamanites. They rejected the preaching of the Nephites in favor of exercising their hatred through warfare. The “power of arms” at the end of the verse contrasts with the “knowledge of the truth” that the Nephites missionaries believed would reclaim and restore the Lamanites. (The apostle Paul also compared the spirit and word of God to a sword. Ephesians 6:17.)  The Lamanites then rejected the gospel, turned to hatred, and took literal swords instead of the figurative sword of truth.

The Nephites, after failing to convert the Lamanites, and being the subjects of eternal hatred then fortified against them.  This sounds purely defensive, but the fortifications refer to arms and not walls, and it led them to be conquerors so I wouldn’t read that quite so literally.  What is interesting, is that even though they resorted to arms, the proper place of warfare was to remind them to trust in God. 

Finally, the couple ends with, “wherefore, they became as yet, conquerors.”  The tentative declaration of that sentence is very poignant to me. Its not a final victory. After all, fighting only occurs because the preaching of the truth failed. The Nephites only succeeded in defending themselves by trusting in God. The victories thus hardly seem like it because a true victory would mean they never had to fight in the first place.  

These verses seem to have influenced later Nephite writers. Alma gave up political power to devote his full time and energy to preaching. His reasoning corresponds to the first part of Jacob’s couplet and the primacy of spiritual power over political power. 

Alma 4:19-

These verses from Jacob seem to have influenced later Nephite writers. Alma gave up political power to devote his full time and energy to preaching. His reasoning corresponds to the first part of Jacob’s couplet and the primacy of spiritual power over political power. 

This he did that he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.
Its interesting to note that those who rejected his spiritual teachings at Ammonihah nominally recognized Alma’s former political power, but it was the rejection of his spiritual teachings and the great wickedness of the city that got them killed (Alma 8:12; 16:2). Pahoran clearly echoes this thinking in response to Moroni. 

Alma 61:14:

Let us resist evil, and whatsoever evil we cannot resist with our words, yeah, such as rebellions and dissensions, let us resist them with our swords, that we may retain our freedom, that we may rejoice in the great privilege of our church, and in the cause of our Redeemer and our God. 
Again, spiritual teachings come first, and the resort to weapons comes second. In this case it’s interesting to note that he is referring to subduing internal rebellions while Jacob was referring to external invasion. Still though, the use of those weapons only occurs after the failure of preaching and must be connected back to God.

In Jacob’s time it simply refers to God and his salvation. But here the use of weapons here points towards their freedom to worship God and protect their church. Not every Nephite belonged to the church of God, so this could have been a more divisive point than modern readers understand. Those that didn’t belong to the church of God were subject to Nephite rulers, again, think of the people of Ammonihah.  In the case of the chief judge Nephihah, he was chosen from only among the elders of the church (Alma 4:19), but they still had to fight for that church’s right to worship at the threat of Moroni’s sword (Alma 51:17).  

Helaman 6:3, 37-

The final case is the most revealing as it shows how the Lamanites either incorporated Nephite thought, or Mormon crafted his narrative in such a way that the Lamanites conformed to it. After the Lamanites were converted in Helaman chapter 5 in chapter 6 they are recorded as being more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:2-3). These righteous Lamanites used “every means” to destroy the Gadianton Robbers. These sounds like an aberration because preaching is supposed to come first according to Jacob. But verse 37 says that the Lamanites “did hunt the band of robbers; and they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them.” The printer’s manuscript may have meant the “less wicked” parts of the robbers, or more wicked parts of the Lamanites who, as Ammon and Aaron found out, would still be more receptive to the gospel than apostate Nephites. But the important part is that the Lamanites preached to those that would listen, and fought those that didn’t.  


Jacob’s short verses were an incredibly powerful statement about the importance of spiritual teachings, it’s relation to warfare, and warfare’s ideal purpose leading to trust in God. Adhering to spiritual teaching was supposed to lead to peace, but the rejection of it often led to war. Warfare required warfare to combat it. Not pacifism as many modern readers mistakenly believe. But that warfare was supposed to be done with a trust in God, and it was supposed to lead to greater reliance on God as the ultimate guarantee of victory, and not the strength of arms as a temporary victory.  

It was so important I believe it influenced Nephite leaders and was possibly transmitted to Lamanite coverts or through the entirety of Nephite history down to its great (second to) last record keeper, Mormon. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Take a Left Turn at Crazy Town

I don’t have much to do with the bloggernacle. During the short time I blogged with Wheat and Tares I had a miserable time as I found posts that were politically conservative or orthodox in defending the church made me heavily outnumbered.  Of course, the defining moment was being told to f**k you by a poster and called an a**hole by one of my fellow permabloggers in the same week. (My crime was suggesting that far left lunatic Gina Colvin deserved her excommunication and liberals were hyperventilating by calling it an act of spiritual violence. She really seems traumatized by the ordeal so I stand corrected.)

I still visit the bloggernacle occasionally as it’s a source of fairly good entertainment. The academic stuff at Faith Promoting Rumor is interesting, though they spend most of their time being anonymous cowards and apostates lobbing grenades at faithful members and scholars. Two of the most recent posts involve a radical left turn even for the very progressive community.

This was from a walking stereotype about her left-wing vision for the church. I’m always a bit skeptical when people’s complaints about the church dovetail with their political ideology. It reminds of D&C 1:16 when they create a God in their own image. Only the poster never mentioned God.

The other post is even more radical. Probably my favorite part is after a radical, racist rant against white people, Nate in the comments tells everybody that if you disagree with the post it proves that you are in fact racist.  

Overall it seems like this mirrors the trend nationally. The old school liberals seem sane compared to the new brand of leftists coming out. The Steve Evans and Hawk Girls of the world are giving guest posts to younger and even more looney writers.

Lest you think there is only left-wing lunacy, Geoff B at the Millennial Star is consistently rude and whacky from the right. Here is my facebook commentary on a post from not too long ago:

Well I think we can reasonably discuss Mitt Romney and Tr----oh wait, Geoff B wrote an article on Romney and Trump over at M*? Well I'm sure it was done with tact and sensitivity...naw I'm joking it was awesomely bad.

I had to write this down because it was so ridiculous so often:

His first point was claiming his opponents have “cognitive dissonance.”  Its always a good start when you accuse your opponents of some mental deficiency.

But don't worry, all the other posts are “childish” while Geoff is the grown up in the room. I skimmed his article but it’s always the comments that rock because Geoff drops whatever thin pretense of objectivity, charity, and rationality he had in the OP:

Gerald Smith doesn’t know how to read. This is a favorite tactic of Geoff. It can’t be that his opponents read his piece and disagree, or gasp, know more than him- because after all, he is a history major- they simply don't understand Geoff's definitive take on the matter. 

He calls Michael a “hopeless bigot.”

Old Man is so clueless that Geoff has a “bridge to sell them.”

He says that Jetboy directly contradicts the churches position. Jetboy is widely known around the bloggernacle as the super orthodox right-wing writer, so let the irony sink in.

He dismisses Sute as somebody that will reflexively ignore him. That was the third time he complained that people are narrowminded because they don’t change their opinions to his. Remember, he is the grown up in the room and everybody else has cartoonish points.

Romney, and anybody who doesn’t support his libertarian talking points (anti massive government spending, huge military budget, entitlement spending with a narrow constitutional interpretation) or sides with the amorphous “establishment” is on the side of “evil” and the “Gadianton Robbers.” 

Geoff B then says his arguments are correct because he majored in American history. Well la de freakin dah, looks like we have a Stephen Ambrose here, let me stop the presses on my next history book to listen.

He then relies on argument by question which I find an especially weak way of argumentative writing. 

So pretty much this was an even bigger dumpster fire than I thought it was going to be.

The conclusion of my journey through this lunacy is that I’m glad I’m not a part of the bloggernacle, and extremely grateful to focus on my academic research. I'm hoping to present more of that research to you soon. Thanks for reading. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Reclaiming King Benjamin: A Response to Patrick Mason and King Benjamin's Statebuilding

Patrick Mason recently wrote an evocative piece for the Maxwell Institute as part of the Mormon Theology Seminar. I was extremely interested because his topic of political history was much closer to my area of study than the normal offerings of (often obscure) philosophy.  Unfortunately, his interpretation left out key verses and twisted many others that resulted in a heavily politicized interpretation of King Benjamin who failed to live up the modern political ideals of some.

Masons’ basic argument is that Benjamin’s speech was the culmination of the Nephite state building started by Mosiah(1).  The Nephites arrived in the Land of Zarahemla which featured different languages, belief systems, and political leaders. Mason states that the integration and assumption of leadership under Mosiah(1) became “heavy handed” under the rule of King Benjamin, his son (pg.6).[1]

Mason blames Benjamin for the “serious war” (Omni 1:24) in which the greedy Nephites, who already claimed Zarahemla as their land of inheritance launched what morphed into an offensive war. According to Mason:

In the space of only about a generation, Nephites had entered the land of Zarahemla as a minority, asserted their linguistic, religious, and political dominance over the longtime inhabitants, and eradicated the remainder of the native population that either refused to accept their rule or which they deemed to be dangerously unassimilable. This pattern, with variations, will be familiar to scholars of settler colonialism, particularly as it played out in the modern history of the American West, Canada, South Africa, and Australia (pg. 6.)

The problem, is that Mason makes similar mistakes to those like John Sorenson, who has been accused of stretching parallels and restating things in his own way to produces correspondences. There is little evidence of their being an internal war. Words of Mormon 1:12 says there were “somewhat contentions” among his own people. V. 13 then transitions to external enemies, which is where the military conflict starts. Moreover, that military conflict is explicitly labelled as a Lamanite offensive that didn’t end until they were “driven out” of Zarahemla (v.14). 

Mason seems to be inventing Nephite offensives. Its possible the Nephites responded with tactically offensive maneuvers within a strategic defensive like the campaign of Alma 43. This also resembles an argument I presented at a conference hosted by Patrick Mason and Claremont.[2] There is an important difference, though, between meeting an aggressive enemy invading your lands, and launching a strategic offensive on enemy lands. Mason ignores that difference by at best, assuming there was a defensive counterattack and mislabeling it, or at worst by inventing a Nephite offensive.

Nowhere in Mason’s summary of King Benjamin’s actions did he acknowledge verse 14 which states that King Benjamin fought “in the strength of the Lord” or verse 18 where he reigned “in righteousness.” Of course, it’s possible that Mormon glossed over King Benjamin’s mistakes and we are getting something closer to propaganda from the editor Mormon. But skipping by these verses exhibits a tendency that many pacifist readings of the Book of Mormon must do,[3] in that they craft a “narrative” in the abstract only by ignoring specific verses.  Given that Mason already invented an offensive war, and ignored their refugee status (discussed below), I’m not willing to make that leap. At best, these are crucial verses that make Mason’s arguments hopelessly speculative.

Mason then goes on to argue that King Benjamin suppressed his religious enemies (often with political undertones). Mason says these were likely Mulekites that resented or refused to accept strange new Nephite teachings. While the Mulekites were widely different than the Nephites at this time, they shared a similar religious and ethnic heritage as the Nephites, and thus likely weren’t as ethnically different as Mason contends. Mason is also taking the most sinister interpretation of words like “sharpness” and “punished” (Words of Mormon 1:17, 15).

While I agree there was some ethnic tension at this time, as people like the Kingmen and the group led by Morianton continued to reject Nephite leadership throughout the Book of Alma, I think Mason overstates his case trying to make King Benjamin into some kind of Torquemada leading an inquisition of Mulekite apostates. Mormon was much more likely referring to King Benjamin the same way he described Alma’s statement of vigorous preaching. If we accepted Mason’s analysis, we would conclude that Alma’s desire to “stir”, “pull down,” “reclaim,” [and] “bear down” in his fight against pride and craftiness were also heavy handed (Alma 4:19). Except we know that isn’t the case because we have his speeches and actions. Unfortunately, Benjamin does not have the same luxury and thus similar evocative verbs about his spiritual efforts are transformed into “religious zeal” and “little tolerance” for such deviance (pg. 7).

Regarding the punishments, Mason expands that to include “criminalized, silenced, suppressed, and punished” (pg. 7).  It is worth nothing, however, that Mason praised the sons of Mosiah(2), (King Benjamin’s grandsons) yet they and Alma the Younger caused a great deal of damage, including plotting to “destroy” the church (Mosiah 27:10, Alma 26:18)) with legal impunity. They may have had had immunity as the sons of prominent elites, though they would be powerful leaders with the ability to topple the dynasty, the church, and the ruling class. All of which suggests Nephite leaders would have been more sensitive to their shenanigans and not less. Their impudence makes me believe that King Benjamin wasn’t as liberal in criminal punishments as Mason would have us believe.      

Finally, we must consider why the Nephites left the land of Nephi in the first place. It would be difficult to imagine the Nephites under Mosiah(1) left the land of their inheritance unless they were forced. They were not a representative faction sent by the Nephites in the Land of Nephi. Unlike Hernando Cortez, they didn’t claim the land for their absolute monarchial patrons. The narrative in Omni 1:12-13 suggested they were the few righteous inhabitants fleeing like their ancestor Nephi had to flee Jerusalem and could reasonably be called refugees. In today’s political discourse, refugee status would engender heartfelt sympathy, especially those that generally eschew state power and seek items like “ethnoracial” inclusiveness and economic justice like Mason (pg.4). But the Nephites and King Benjamin are the subject of attacks here, so their status as refugees is transformed into imperialists conquering a new land.


Thus, a close reading of the text suggests a vastly different narrative than the one offered by Mason.  Mosiah(1) and the Nephites were refugees who forged a new, mutually beneficial, consensus with the original inhabitants based on cooperation and possibly intermarriage.[4] Those refugees and their new allies faced serious assaults from the determined and aggressive enemies that forced them to leave in the first place. They defended themselves “in righteousness” (Words of Mormon 1:17) to establish “peace in the land” (v.18).  King Benjamin, like his predecessor Alma, tended to the church by rebuking apostates, and managed both civil and spiritual concerns by criminal prosecution of the worst offenders. The latitude afforded the apostate Sons of Mosiah(2) and Alma the Younger suggest these criminal punishments were applied rarely to only the worst offenders and treasonous. Possible intermarriage would have acted as a further deterrent on widespread excessive punishments. That is far different than imperialist Nephite forces dominating ethnic and linguistic others into submission, and then oppressively assaulting dissidents, criminalizing ethnic minorities, and invading their Lamanite enemies for little reason beyond asserting their own political power as Mason asserts.

I’m a proponent of more critical readings of the Book of Mormon. I have no problem with scouring the texts to produce new and even critical insights. I endorse that approach so much it was the methodology of my second book. But Mason here seems to be ignoring stronger readings, plainly listed in the text for more speculative material based on wild reinterpretations to support a politicized message.  

Sadly, this seems to reinforce perceptions of the new direction Maxwell Institute. The 1998 Maxwell Institute called King Benjamin’s speech a “treasure trove of inspiration, wisdom, eloquence, and spiritual insight.” The 2020 Maxwell Institute solicits, sponsors, and advertises work that provides some theological window dressing on the speech, but mostly calls King Benjamin a colonialist inquisitor and warmonger to promote their ideology.  Most ironically of all, the Maxwell Institute posted this on social media as a spiritual study aid. But I don’t know many members that will find this a spiritual bonanza.

Thanks for reading! I work as a freelance author and military historian. Producing ad free research for over a decade takes a great deal of time and effort. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below, or buy one of my books using the link in the top left. Thanks again for reading! 

[1] The exact phrase is “heavier hand.” All page numbers are from Patrick Mason, “King Benjamin’s Statebuilding Project and the Limits of Statist Religion.”
[2] 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), 29-40. See also, Karl Von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret Eds., (Princeton University Press, 1984,) Book six, chapter one.
[3] See for example, 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,) 13-28.
[4] The Ammon that found Zeniff referred to those individuals as “his brethren” (Mosiah 9:1) but was also described as a descendent of Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:3), implying dual origin. King Benjamin named two of his sons with Jaredite name ending, possibly filtered through the Mulekites, suggesting a Mulekite wife. Mosiah 1:2. Plus, marriage is how political alliances were sealed in premodern times.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Battle Pause in Alma 44

The battle account in Alma 44 always confused me a bit. In this chapter the Lamanites are caught in Captain Moroni’s trap and the battle is reported in Alma 43 as being incredibly intense. The Lamanites fought with such fury they were described as dragons that could spilt breast plates in two (Alma 43:44).  Yet a short time later the battle ended, Moroni gave a speech, Zarahemnah handed the weapons to Moroni, gives a counter speech, and Moroni hands the weapons back. 

This was very confusing to me because it suggests a level of command and control over the battlefield that seemed too great for Nephite armies. Once battles are joined, they aren’t paused and restarted multiple times like a stop watch.  Having some extra time at home on my hands I’ve been rereading my material from grad school, and I found a quote which suggests that battles could be paused or put into some sort of stasis. 

Speaking of Roman warfare Harry Sidebottom wrote: 

“That [hand to hand] fighting was physically exhausting- and we can estimate some battles like Cannae, lasted for hours- has led some modern scholars to hypothesize that at times such combat reverted to a ‘default state,’ where the two sides would draw back and hurl missiles and insults at each other as they got up their courage [and strength] for another short burst of hand to hand fighting.”[1]

There is certainly a great deal of this that applies to the Book of Mormon. This is the battle in which the Nephites debuted their heavier armor. (I say heavier instead of heavy because the Nephites armor was enough to scare their loin clad enemies, but not metal enough to be similar to heavy infantry throughout history as I explain here.)  The Nephite armor would have caused their fatigued. The Lamanite exertion would have caused their fatigue. And certainly, the exchange between the two leaders was testy so this matches up in some respects to Sidebottom’s quote.

But this quote is not completely satisfactory. This battle includes some sort of ceremonial element when Moroni demanded his opponent’s weapons and a covenant (Alma 44:7-10). Thus, the description of battle as a free for all that eludes any ability to pause the battle, but then is so exhausting that it produces a stalemate isn’t completely satisfactory. I suspect these ritual elements hold the key. They represent the paused elements in the battle and there seems to be some sort of mixture between formal rules to battle and the lack of it. After all, this was a pivotal battle that first displayed Moroni's heavier armor, and he seems to defensive about his ambush (Alma 43:29-30), which makes sense if one is to be believe there is a ritualistic element to the battle.  I believe that research more into such items as flower wars, mourning wars, desecrecation ceremonies and similar conflicts that limited warfare to find a better answer. I’ll just have to wait for the libraries to open again.  

[1] Harry Sidebottom, Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004, pg. 88.