Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Conversion is Crown Deep: Reassessing Helaman 4-6

Helaman 5 includes a long discussion of the preaching of Nephi and Lehi, and a rather remarkable vision and story. This includes a pillar of fire and ministering angels. Between Helaman 5:17-19 and 51-52 over 8,000 Lamanites around Zarahemla are converted, and they gave back all of the territory they conquered in chapter 4. The most perplexing to me is why did baptism result in major territorial change? It’s basically covered in one perfunctory verse yet there must have been some intense celebration and political wrangling. The current elites and governor would have to share or give power to the returning elites, and the sudden recovery of territory would have propelled Nephi and Lehi into stratospheres of popularity. Yet it gets a single verse, about half a chapter of happy talk, and then lots more talk about Gadianton Robbers. Nephi and Lehi remain somewhat aloof and even leave the land for many years (and chapters). Obviously there is something more going on here.

Why Convert In History

Luckily, we have plenty of historical precedent for mass conversions. In the space of about 100 years the Roman Empire went from persecuting them to having an Emperor convert and declares it the state religion. The German tribes that invaded often converted to a heretical version of Christianity which limited their influence with the people they ruled.[1] The Mongol rulers were surprisingly tolerant of Nestorian Christianity and a significant minority of them converted. Rising European states like Ukraine essentially held try outs between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the personality of the missionaries and heads of church influenced the outcome a good deal.

There was more than sincere conversion that played a role. The political rulers could unify the realm under a central religious system. Though there was also some potential political division in the short term. Many of the Ukrainian nobles rebelled for example over their king’s conversion but were crushed or converted. The title of king was incredibly important in helping rulers overcome reluctant pagans and overcome revolts. From the Kingdom of Sicily to Poland all the way to the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, a ruler often went to great lengths and made many concessions to get their crown sanctioned by the church. Being a Christian king allowed the ruler to consolidate his rule against his noble rivals who refused to convert.  Sadly, considering the message of love, it became another club that the rulers could use to beat their pagan subjects. Christian institutions such as churches and monasteries became important centers of revenue for the budding state.

The baptism of Clovis in 496 AD. Notice the combination of warrior like pose, crown, and spiritual ceremony. This was part of the beginning of early medieval France and the European community. 

Diplomatically the new Christian kingdom became part of the club. They often had closer relationships with other Christian kingdoms and diplomacy was easier. Baltic States that converted not only found new allies in defense, but they also received justification for crusades against their pagan neighbors.  The conversion of Lithuania shows many of these trends. The ruler vacillated between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, lobbied for a crown, sought marriage alliances that included conversion, thought conversion would help them rule their Eastern Orthodox subjects in their Russian territories, and viewed conversion as a way to end the crusade of Teutonic Knights against them.

The final benefit had to do with tools of statecraft. The new kings had to organize, equip, and feed armies as well as tax the nation.  The first alphabets for many Eastern Europeans languages were written by missionaries and the first written documents were translated Bibles. The Venerable Bede of Great Britain provided one of the first histories of that region. So the church ended up providing some of the most important tools of statecraft that expanded central power, provided for added administrative controls, and even wrote down their legends and founding myths that are important to every country.

Book of Mormon Conversion

Helaman 6 describes a brief period of peace after the mass Lamanite conversion. Given that most of the chapter shifts to discussing the Gadianton Robbers, I doubt the peace and prosperity was as widespread as it seems but the benefits are real. Politically, Helaman 4:4 discussed dissenters from the Nephites stir up Lamanites to battle, so it’s not surprising that some Lamanites might have resented the usurpation of power and think joining the Nephites was a better option.  Remember that Amalickiah and his brother and Nephew recently ruled the Lamanites. Ammoron’s son invaded the Nephites in Helaman 1, in the same time frame as Moronihah’s command in Helaman 4.  The contemporary leaders aren’t mentioned, but it’s likely that existing dissenters and the new ones in Helaman 4:4 likely assumed leadership positions in the Lamanite army, politics, and church.  

But with their conversion the Lamanites became part of the Nephite power and trading  structure.  Helaman 6:3 and 8 record “they did fellowship…[and] did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and to sell, and to get gain. They also became extremely “rich (Helaman 6:9.)” In fact, this is a great series of verses that discusses the many trades and crafts that exist from gold and silver mining to weaving and ranching.  This is a period of prosperity that likely discusses the strengthened Nephite position with the new converts. There is no word on leadership positions, but the chief judges are rarely mentioned by name, and when they are there is no backstory, and a distinct separation from the traditional centers of power that dominated in the book of Alma. This is very speculative but there is evidence of a political realignment that allows the possibility of power sharing with the Lamanites converts.  

At other points in the text, a rapprochement between the two sides led to greater written correspondence, which suggests a greater emphasis cultural communication and the tools of state craft mentioned above.[2]  The Lamanites are actually praised for using “every means” to “destroy” the Gadianton Robbers, which might be the only time in the scriptures their martial activities are praised. Talk about being part of the club and receiving justification for their actions! When the Lamanites are not part of the club they are described a warlike, bloodthirsty and plundering people.
In the church the Lamanites were respected by Mormon for their steadfast conversion, and they had positions of authority and influence as Samuel the Lamanite preachers in Helaman 6:4 came to Zarahemla.  and in military affairs the Lamanites received benefits for their conversion.
In matters of politics, statecraft, trade, the military and spiritual matters, the Lamanites benefited from their conversion.  They were no longer the indolent and violent outsider, but a part of the club. Even though the Lamanites participated in many of the same political wrangling and military maneuvers as before their conversion.

It’s true that Helaman chapter 6 says the Lamanites became more righteous in this period. The overall arch of the chapter which discussed wickedness and Gadianton Robbers for most of it, and the wickedness replete in Helaman and 3rd Nephi, combined with a more nuanced view of the benefits of conversion, suggest there is more to this conversion than a heartwarming story which included many benefits that enhanced their status within Nephite society.  I can’t help but wonder if the quick pride cycle and falling away by many church members throughout the Book of Helaman was because their conversion was only crown deep (Helaman 6:31).  

What do you think?


[1] Which I discuss in a chapter of my new book.
[2] I couldn’t find the specific verse. If somebody wants to mention it in the comments I’ll give you a million imaginary bonus points. 

[Thanks for reading. Many of you might not know, but I was in the hospital for a brief period last month. I'm okay now, but I have a good deal of medical debt and work as a free lance writer. If you found value in this work please consider donating using one of the paypal buttons below. It is especially helpful at this time.] 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Abinadi as a soldier?

The Maxwell Institute has posted a series of blog posts about their summer study series. Nate Oman suggested that Abinadi could have been a soldier. The evidence is seen in several places, such as Mosiah 11:20 saying that he was among "them." But the closest antecedent was the victorious army in verse 19. There is more as well and you should go read the blog post, and I can't wait for the entire argument to appear. I think the argument is intriguing and has merit. I especially never thought something like the antecedent of a pronoun being that important. I always assumed that "among them" referred to the people. But if Abinadi was speaking among the people of course he was one of them. So there must be something more which Nate identifies.

I haven't had a chance to explore this more fully, but I thought my reading of Mosiah 15 as a Biblical type scene was pretty good too.  And of course, I'll continue to apply to these and hopefully attend one some day. (It kind of feels like destiny that I'll be accepted to the seminar that takes place in London.😉) I hope you enjoy the read.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Day They Came

Cross posted at Wheat and Tares

The villagers were enjoying the last coolness of the night before the sun rose. A gentle breeze rolled off of the ocean from their semi-permanent shelters. A few women were already beginning to grind nuts and millet to make the morning meal.  The men were stirring, ready to hunt wild pigs and speer fish to supplement the fruits and grain.

As the sun rose the first hint of danger was the barking and squawking of small animals in the village. On top of the hill, the birds suddenly flew from the tree tops and thick brush. The rustling of fleeing animals from the underbrush got louder. Once the sun has crested the hill it outlined the approaching soldiers. Their head gear added to the length of their shadows, and the sun glistened off of their new heavier armor made of glass, bone, and pieces of metal. Their swords were already in hand, and they had started to pick up the pace in their balanced ranks.

The cry went up from one of the women and the village became a scene of commotion. The women screamed for their children, or just screamed in terror. The old men stirred more slowly, sad at what they knew was coming to their village. They had warned the younger elders of the perfidy of their neighbors, just as their grandfathers had warned them.  They even received warnings from fleeing political leaders. He told disturbing tales of armies that were led by a young, angry, firebrand who it was said, often discussed his desire to seize more land and used the army to intimidate disagreeing opponents. It was said he spent small fortunes on arming them with new and heavier armor, he desired the extermination of everybody who opposed him, and he sent that army to pull down and level his opponents and seize their wealth.  And the intimidating soldiers, with heavier armor stood right in rank and file as evidence in front of the terrified villagers.

The young men in the village were moving the fastest. The soldiers marched forward with a steady crunch, swhoosh, chrunch, swhoosh and by the time the soldiers had marched to the bottom of the hill they faced a small line of young men and experienced warriors armed with swords, curved swords, and slings made out of bone, jade, obsidian. The fleet and elite warriors of the village managed to put on hide armor and thick, padded cloth armor.

The captains yelled to maintain ranks, and the chief captain yelled the order to attack, and the soldiers rushed forward with a unifying cry! The skirmish was over quickly, as the heavier and ornate armor of the army deflected the blows of the warriors. Only one of them every now and again was even wounded, while the lightly armored and surprised warriors were quickly killed and overwhelmed. The few armed with slings managed to wound a few soldiers, mainly in the legs, but it was a one- sided conflict. The defeated villagers grabbed whatever they could and rush into out the other side of the village. They fled in small groups with bits of necklace, pottery, food, and clothing.

Each family in the village had at least one small boat for fishing in the sea, and it proved useful in crossing the nearby river. The softly rushing water flowing through reeds, and the croak of frogs contrasted with the smell of smoke, screams of the wounded and dying, the mourning for the fallen and the crackling fire that soldiers had started. Those who fought the fear and the heart break to look behind them saw the rising smoke. They would never come back to what they considered their home. They faced an uncertain future among loosely related political and ethnic groups around the capital and its environs, the surviving men resolved to get revenge for their eviction and looked forward to telling their stories of woe to whoever would hear it. Maybe they would be allowed to speak from the towers…

English colonists attacking the Pequot in 1636. I know this brings up imperialism and other sensitive matters, but that was not an exclusive Western, white, and modern sin. I think an argument can be made that the Nephites were imperialists as well. 

In the village the captains started organizing the consolidation. They focused their ire on a large wooden tower. It was recently built in the center of the village and the army didn’t need to guess what lies it had testified to. They just barely missed capturing that traitor and he had found a friendly audience among this group. They torched the tower immediately.  The semi-permanent structures were torn apart by soldiers. The new space would be the location of a governor’s headquarters, the first homes for new settlers, and store houses for the expected farming and hunting.  Most importantly, they would have space for a barracks. The wood could be used for new palisades on top of the planned berms around the city. The remaining individuals not quick or healthy enough to flee were held captive. The soldiers were under strict orders not to rape them, but some of them certainly leered enough to make the women and girls uncomfortable. Their last king had outlawed slavery years earlier, but the soldiers had plenty of work to do before the coming settlers, they wanted some reward and could use the cheap labor provided by the captured individuals. The captured would work in the houses and fields of the new elites and be grateful for the steady employment and lifestyle far above their current savage condition.

The chief captain sheathed his sword and took a deep breath. He examined the bustling activity and felt a surge of pride. He had sworn and oath to protect his people and continue to do so. The berm and palisade along the river would prove a solid defense against the depredations of these savages. They’ve wasted this land, and laid waste to his land for far too long. They’ve been even more restless since that traitor escaped, and he instinctively took another satisfying breath of the burning wood from the tower.  He point north and south along the river and directed the new patrols to hunt down and capture stragglers. He asked his assistant to bring his writing equipment and erect a small table. He needed to report to the Chief Governor, and make sure the new settlers arrived in orderly fashion. The security of the realm depended making this region productive…

This is a dramatic recreation of the events in Alma chapter 50 and includes elements from the war chapters in general. That chapter describes Moroni’s actions to fortify the land and expel Lamanite settlers in rather laudatory terms. Verses 18-21 actually described a Nephite golden age that happened right after these actions. As Grant Hardy described, in literary accounts the text often tries to distract a person. I thought it was interesting that the account moved away from Moroni’s actions to instead discuss how happy the Nephite’s were. But I thought a more critical look at his actions suggest this might have had negative consequences, such as a flow of angry refugees, and a confirmation of the insidious stories that Amalickiah was telling. I doubt the process of securing the wilderness areas was pleasant. They didn’t get an eviction notice with 30 days to prepare; it was likely an unpleasant and violent experience for those that experienced it. I also added some reasonable embellishments based on my knowledge of military history, the history and geography of the region, and human nature. I hope you enjoy it, I might add this to the introduction of my next book, and if I was really ambitious perhaps I would write a Game of Thrones style epic fantasy based on the war chapters. What details did you notice from the scriptures? What details do you think I should have added? Thanks for reading! 

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