Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Imperial Patriots: The Book of Mormon War Chapters as a Catalyst for Imperialism

[This is an abstract for a paper I proposed to the Society for Military History and their theme of transformative warfare.]
The Book of Mormon primarily serves as a spiritual witness in the religious realm. But almost one third of the book is devoted to warfare.  Some sociologists have also described Mormonism as a new world religion.[1]  Yet the book, particularly its military passages, remains woefully understudied.[2]  At least in part this is due to the enormous spiritual baggage and bitter polemic debates that accompany the book.  But new research, such as that by Grant Hardy, has tried to bracket the claims of its truthfulness to better understand the complexity, beauty, and message of the text.[3] 

In particular, the Book of Mormon contains a dense series of chapters that follow a great war between the two principle groups, the Nephites and Lamanites. Both groups descended from two brothers, Nephi and Laman, who left Jerusalem around 600 B.C. [4] After journeying to the new world they split into two groups that frequently warred with each other until the Nephites were destroyed in the 4th century A.D. Living in the first century B.C., Moroni is described as leading the Nephites during a 14 year long period of intense conflict covered in a dense narrative section called the “war chapters.” His actions included creating a standard of liberty to rally his people, giving powerful political religious speeches that increased support for the war, merciful treatment of surrounded and surrendered soldiers, many outstanding battlefield victories, brilliant strategy and pre battle tactical maneuvers, and a respect for the rule of law. But his actions also included things that are not as sterling or had unintended consequences.   This included the use of preemptive warfare, increased use of (expensive) armor for his soldiers, increased use of fortifications, an expansion of the size of armies, execution of defectors, aggressive pursuit of decisive battle, a completely counterproductive negotiating strategy, using rhetoric that threatened a war of extermination against his enemies, and a threatened coup against the government. 

A careful reading of the war chapters suggests that Moroni initiated a series of actions that inaugurated an imperial period within the book, led to their eventual destruction as a political entity, and can be used by modern readers to justify an aggressive and interventionist American foreign policy. Examining the unintended consequences suggests a need for added caution in considering the merits of military action. A relatively short time before Moroni assumed military command, King Benjamin served as a “yeoman” ruler who boasted that he farmed with his own hand.[5] The Nephites ruled a relatively small area around their capital and had a single army. Yet a generation later, the Nephite people led by Moroni preemptively seized land during a time of peace, and preemptively sought to attack an enemy leader.  Moroni changed their armor and fortifications that made their military more effective in the short term, but more expensive to maintain in the long run. The Nephites also fielded multiple armies capable of operating in different theatres with Moroni as the chief captain. The necessary tax base to fund the armor and fortifications required more extensive territory, protection of trade routes and a larger military; these actions led to deeper debts and an overextension of their military. Even though the Nephite armies explicitly fought under a banner of liberty, they faced continued political unrest, increasing social stratification, oppression of the poor, and a growing insurgency they had trouble subduing.

Battlefield losses often inspire great soul searching and political, military, and cultural reform, while winning a war brings a whole new set of problems.  From Rome to Britain, to American policy after World War II, the burden of hegemonic leadership is often assumed vigorously after outstanding military victory, but often unravels from within due to the demands of money and men and a slow decay of society’s ability, and desire, to furnish them.  The Book of Mormon is a uniquely American text,[6] from a uniquely American religion that informs the voting habits of millions of Americans.  Thus a study of the war chapters suggests that Moroni initiated a series of actions that inaugurated an imperial period within the book, and can be used to justify an aggressive and interventionist American foreign policy, while at the same time shows a transformation that has been missed by military historians.

[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Mormonism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). 
[2] Stephen D. Ricks, William Hamblin Eds. Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS Press 2001), is the only academically substantive book dedicated to warfare in the Book of Mormon.  Patrick Mason, David Pulispher, Richard Bushman, ed. War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (Draper UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), is a more recent addition but it has very few chapters on the Book of Mormon and only one from a military historian. 
[3] Grant Hardy, Understanding The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[4] Bracketing truth claims I can either report the dates and actions of the characters with the Book of Mormon faithfully, or add a “supposedly” or “reportedly” in front of every fact in the book.  For the sake of brevity I will simply report what the book said. Serious skeptics and non believers of the book can feel free to add those qualifiers and keep in mind that the entire volume is a fantasy fiction of Joseph Smith.  
[5] Scott, G. St. John. “King Benjamin and the Yeoman Farmer” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39 (1988), 1-26.
[6] This is due to its focus on at least some part of North or South America being type of “promised land” similar to the land of Israel described in the Bible.


Manda said...

This is well written with plenty of room for exposition. I'll admit it: the "war chapters" have always confused me with who's in power where and what is going on. This was clear, concise and to the point. Thank you for writing. Well done.

Morgan Deane said...

Thanks Manda. :)

Michaela Stephens said...

Fascinating. Now that you point that out, I can totally see that rising imperialism! Nice job!

Morgan Deane said...

Thanks! I hope to develop this into a full paper soon.

Michael W. Towns, Sr. said...

Very nice blog you have. I haven't fully absorbed all that you've written here, but it looks top notch and it's obvious that you love the Book of Mormon.

Jon Goff said...

I'm looking forward to seeing the more detailed article. I think sometimes its easy for LDS readers to assume that the good guys in the text made no real mistakes (just the bad guys), but I think that they'd rather have us learn from their mistakes than put them on a pedestal as though they were perfect.


Jon Goff said...

Very interest blog post! I'm looking forward to seeing the more detailed article. I think that it's easy for LDS readers to assume that the "good guys" in the books made no mistakes--especially in things they did for good purposes. I think that people from the BoM would far more like to see us learn from their mistakes (especially their well-intentioned ones) than to idolize them and ignore the lessons of their history.


Morgan Deane said...

Thanks for the comments everybody. I'm glad you enjoy everything here.

2disbetter said...

As a late comer to your work, this may be naive but have you already published something that completes this article? I am curious if you explain in more detail why you think Moroni operated the way he did? I'm particularly interested if you are insinuating that imperialism under the banner of a righteous leader is a good or bad thing according to history. We know from the text what God preferred, (judges versus a single point of failure amongst a bad king.) but see from King Benjamin how effective they can be towards maintaining peace and a proud of progress. Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to more!