[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.
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.
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, 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. 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.
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.
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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 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.
 John Welch, Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2008), The Trial of Nehor.
 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