Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Soldier in Armor Does Not Bow: The Book of Mormon’s Debate with Chinese Theory

Two interesting quotes from the Chinese military writing Wei Liaozi introduces interesting questions about the place of ritual in the army camp. This was a latter work than other and far more famous classics like Sunzi (Sun-Tzu) and represents a possible development in Chinese thought away from what the Kaangxi emperor called, “nonsense about water and fire, lucky omens and advice on the weather, all at random and contradicting each other.”[1]

The first quote is clearly the lessons from a military commander that rejects divine intervention in battle:

Now if there is a fortified city and one attacks it from the east and west but cannot take it, and attacks from the south and north but cannot take it, can it be that all four directions failed to accord with an [auspicious] moment that could be exploited? If you still cannot take it, it is because the walls are high, the moats deep, the weapons are implements fully prepared, the materials and grains accumulated in great quantities, and their valiant soldiers unified in their plans….

The Chu general Kongzi Xin was about to engage Chi in battle. At that time a comet appeared, with its tail over Chi. [According to such beliefs] wherever the tail pointed would be victorious, and they could not be attacked. Kongzi Xin said: ‘What does a comet know? Those who fight according to the comet will certainly be overturned and conquered.’ On the morrow he engaged Chi and greatly defeated them. The Yellow Emperor said: ‘Putting spirits and ghosts first is not as good as first investigating my own knowledge.’ This means that the Heavenly Offices are nothing but human effort.[2]

This was interesting to me for at least several reasons. First, this is something which many modern readers would agree with. After all, a comet doesn’t determine who wins a battle.  Instead the military leaders assess the physical factors like the height of the wall and preparation of the army.   

But the second reason comes from its clash with the Book of Mormon. Mormon very clearly felt that God’s protection made the people powerful.  One of God’s prophets was saved by a rare celestial event in 3 Nephi chapter 1. Helaman 4:23-26 provides a counter argument to Wei Liaozi:

And because of their iniquity the church had begun to dwindle; and they began to disbelieve in the spirit of prophecy and in the spirit of revelation; and the judgments of God did stare them in the face. And they saw that they had become weak, like unto their brethren, the Lamanites, and that the Spirit of the Lord did no more preserve them; yea, it had withdrawn from them because the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples—

Therefore the Lord did cease to preserve them by his miraculous and matchless power, for they had fallen into a state of unbelief and awful wickedness; and they saw that the Lamanites were exceedingly more numerous than they, and except they should cleave unto the Lord their God they must unavoidably perish.
 For behold, they saw that the strength of the Lamanites was as great as their strength, even man for man. And thus had they fallen into this great transgression; yea, thus had they become weak, because of their transgression, in the space of not many years.
According to Mormon the Nephites lost not because the walls were high and the moats deep, but because the Lord’s spirit has ceased to be with them. They were no longer preserved by his miraculous and matchless power. So Wei Liaozi focuses on human effort, while the Book of Mormon clearly shows that human effort is a part of it, but true victory relies upon God’s preserving power.

The second quote is related to the first, and it involves the behavior of armies.  As I described in what could be the common soldiers’ negative opinion of Moroni, despite being a central figure in the war chapters his character is blinded by hagiographic verses such as shaking the foundation of Hell (Alma 48:17) or his being beloved of all the people (Alma 53:3). The average soldier likely wasn’t nearly as righteous as the text suggests. They likely resented the extra labor imposed upon them and found Moroni to be a stern prig. I invite you to read all of those examples and arguments in the link. 

But the next quote suggests there are negative consequences to being too exacting in the application of rites:

When Wu Chi engaged Chin in battle, wherever he encamped the army did not flatten the paths between the fields. Young saplings provided protective covering against the frost and dew. Why did he act like this? Because he did not place himself higher than other men. If you want men to die, you do not require them to perform [perfunctory acts] of respect. If you want men to exhaust their strength, you do not hold them responsible for performing the rites. Thus, in antiquity an officer wearing a helmet and armor did not bow, showing people that he is not troubled by anything.[3]

The Methods of Sima, another military classic, expounds upon this concept exceptionally well:[4]

In the civilian sphere words are cultivated and speech languid. In court one is respectful and courteous and cultivates himself to serve others. Unsummoned, he does not step forth; unquestioned, he does not speak. It is difficult to advance but easy to withdraw.
In the military realm one speaks directly and stands firm. When deployed in formation one focuses on duty and acts decisively. Those earing battle armor do not bow; those in war chariots need not observe the forms of propriety [li]; those manning fortifications do not scurry... Thus the civilian forms of behavior [li] and military standards [fa] are like inside and outside; the civil and martial are like left and right.

There are no specific verses about how he acted in camp or on campaign.  Moroni is a revered figure by readers including me in boot camp. He did attack the central government for their stupor of thought which suggests that he felt at least in this instant his military command outweighed the civilian oversight. This could suggest that he firmly felt he shouldn’t have his strategy dictated by the dilatory actions of those in the capital. 

He seems like a strong military man that didn’t suffer civilian fools (Alma 60), yet also like a spiritual rock that would shake the powers of Hell forever (Alma 48:17). The deciding text for me is in discussion about the Sons of Helaman in Alma 57:21:

[They d]id obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness; yea, and even according to their faith it was done unto them; and I did remember the words which they said unto me that their mothers had taught them.

The key word here is exactness, and this doesn’t directly apply to Moroni but his complaints against the government and another military force praised for “exactness” suggests Moroni would have enforced various rules in camp, was such a stickler for the rules, and he cared about even the minor infractions and  perfunctory rituals mentioned by Wei Liaozi.  

If this is an open ended question that isn’t answered by specific verses my personal experience makes me believe that a stern leader, impressed by “exactness,” would make an armored soldier bow. I’ve served in the military, and I can say that small things such as making sure your field jacket is all the zipped or completely unzipped (not halfway like an “effing GQ model” as my Sergeant said), or making sure that the caps to your canteens are snapped shut are a big deal in many units under the that these things lead to better discipline and combat performance. A good unit, or at least those with overbearing commanders often mistake trifling exactness with discipline. In fact, Wei Liaozi’s next comment vividly reminded me of my time in service: “To annoy people yet require them to die, to exhaust their strength, from antiquity until today has never been heard of.”

Yet even though Moroni’s behavior contradicted these theories, the editors of the Book of Mormon strongly disagreed and felt his behavior was important and necessary.


The two ideas about perfunctory ritual and divine intervention are connected. After all, if you don’t think that heavenly officers and omens helps an army’s performance in battle, the soldiers and leaders wouldn’t see a practical advantage in stressing the observance of those rituals. The righteous Nephites in the Book of Mormon certainly believed that their spiritual strength mattered in combat. Moroni rallied the people and made them covenant under the Title of Liberty, and articles by Stephen Ricks among others discuss how the Stripling Warriors reflected “outstanding purity.” These both suggest the Nephites considered religious rites rather important, as they could affect the outcome of the battle and the survival of the Nephites.

The importance of ritual during army life and divine intervention in battle matters to every soldier that has faced potential combat, and becomes an important question for governments that send them into combat. The Book of Mormon has a very clear message on the importance of righteousness and the observance of proper behavior by soldiers, and the divine hand that supported the Nephites. It is not in the same exact language, but it enters the conversation and debate on matters that challenged leading thinkers in the ancient world from Thucydides to Wei Liaozi.

Thanks for reading. I work as a freelance author. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below and you can get more articles! Or you can buy one of my excellent books which refines the ideas presented on the blog! 

[1] Jonathan D. Spence. trans and ed. Emperor: A Self Portrait of Kang-hsi. (New York: Alfred A Knopf). 1974. p. 22
[2] Wei Liaozi, trans. by Ralph Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Westivew Press, 1993, 242-243.
[3] Ibid., 257.
[4] Ibid., 132.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Beloved Moroni? The Common Soldier's View

This might sound like an easy question to answer. After all, the book of Alma clearly stated:

Now behold, this Lehi was a man who had been with Moroni in the more part of all his battles; and he was a man alike unto Moroni, and they rejoiced in each other’s safety; yea, they were beloved by each other, and also beloved by all the people of Nephi. alma 53:2 
But there is more to the story than simply taking this passage at face value. My problem with simply accepting this verse was voiced in response to a controversial three part article by Duane Boyce. In part two he used a biased account from the Nephites to explain how the Nephite record keepers weren’t biased.[1]The Book of Mormon is of course something that should be used by those who think it has spiritual value. But that doesn’t mean its historical implications are correct. For the sake of space I won’t defend or explain the methodology I use though you can find explanations in several other places.

Examining the key verses

To put it simply, what if the claim about being beloved is just a rhetorical insertion? After all, there are no accounts of people rushing into the streets to proclaim their love for Moroni and throwing flowers at his feet. There is an account of people ripping their clothes symbolically, donning their armor, and rushing to support a political/military leader to subdue his enemies. That fits with our vision of Moroni as a strong and mighty man, but not with one that makes him seem sympathetic, cuddly, and beloved. (You might compare him to Stannis from Game of Thrones. He was right, just, and mighty, but described as more iron than velvet.)

In Alma 48 is used as a frequent qualification for the man as well: “if all men had been…like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever.” Again, that is a powerful endorsement of spiritual strength from an editor of the same religion and who was so infatuated with Moroni since he named his son after him. This statement reinforces Moroni’s strength in fighting evil and shaking the foundations of hell,but still doesn’t give any specific indications that he was beloved by the people.

Outside of Alma 48:17, Moroni was often described in the text as someone who was angry, pursued counterproductive negotiating strategies, vowed a war of extermination against the Lamanites and a coup against his own government, pursued bloody and direct battle when perhaps other strategies might have worked better, and left a legacy of what could objectively be described as aggression. Parsing the praise of Moroni suggests that he didn’t do anything in particular to gain the favor of his people, and likely did a great deal to alienate them.

Soldiers reacting to religion and work

Generals have their own stereotype of the church lady,Stonewall Jackson for example was known to walk through the military camps and soldiers would quickly hide their playing cards and start a church meeting to avoid Jackson’s displeasure. The very qualities that made him shake the foundations of hell would likely make him extremely annoying, and piously self-righteous to the average soldier that cared about their alcohol ration(Alma 55:11), time with the family (Alma 56:28), or time to patronize the world’s oldest profession ( Alma 39:3).

This gets in to how righteous the army really was. Some elements were likely zealots just as righteous as Moroni, (perhaps the soldier in Alma 44:12-13) but I think many were about the average soldier throughout history. There are no scriptures that really say all of them were a super righteous army, we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves which is the whole point of this post. For example, when King David was trying to cover up his affair with Bathsheeba he gave Uriah leave to make a conjugal visit with his wife (2 Samuel 11:6-11.) But Uriah was so righteous that he refused. The thought that David could cover up his crime using this ruse suggests that David also thought most soldiers would have gladly spent a night with their wife than be hard core and super dedicated.

But Moroni was kind of person the kind of leader that ordered his soldiers to make fortifications (Alma 50:10; 53:7) perform nighttime activities such as patrols and extensive guard duty (Alma 53:1, 5, 7),and harvest or distribute food in some way (again, Alma 53:7). These are good military strategies, but taken to taken to an extreme, and speaking from personal experience, all of these activities generally make the soldiers work so much that they wouldn’t have time for soldiering or leave with their families. In fact, on the day of this writing I found a great piece that looked at how the military creates endemic stress that destroys lives and families. Yet families are the very item he used to motivate his soldiers with the Title of Liberty before and during battle. In short, a few verses after it said he was beloved, we can read several reasons the average soldier would grumble about him even when they weren’t in battle:

And it came to pass that he did no more attempt a battle with the Lamanites in that year, but he did employ his men in preparing for war, yea, and in making fortifications to guard against the Lamanites, yea, and also delivering their women and their children from famine and affliction, and providing food for their armies. Alma 53:7
Describing Moroni without using Scriptures

Despite having many verses that suggest Moroni was an uncomfortable man to be around, rosy and laudatory accounts still exist.Notably, these are lacking a specific assessment of verses but, they mold Moroni in the image of their own Gods (D&C 1:16).

The first is from Kendal Anderson. (The whole book is pretty lousy so I won’t belabor that point but you can read my review here.) Anderson asserted that “the fruits of the Nephite war of defense against the Lamanites were peace, liberty, freedom of religion, the mass conversion of Lamanite POWs, and the restoration of Nephite lands and property (144).”

But this is stunningly ignorant of the text. As soon as a single chapter after the war ended the Nephites lost their capital to the Lamanites. By Helaman 4, Moroni’s son could only regain half the land. And the Book of Helaman is replete with wicked chief judges, the constant quest for money (Helaman 6:7, 18; 7:5, 21), and Lamanites that were more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:1). This is hardly the golden age of peace and liberty that Anderson claimed. I have a general problem, (get it, general! hehe), with Libertarians’ vision of Moroni because he was an agent of the government that forced men to fight for liberty, which sounds like the opposite of their politics.

David Spencer in Moroni’s Command was better, but still misses the mark:[1]

[Moroni] cared deeply for his men, and was enraged when he thought they were being mistreated by the government. A typ­ical soldier, he hated bureaucracy, especially when it affected his soldiers’ well being and lives…In today’s world, Captain Moroni would be considered a soldier’s soldier.This means a man who leads from the front, shares the deprivations of his men, who puts his mission and men above himself, and who never asks his sub­ordinates to do things he is not willing to do himself.

But the argument is not as solid as it seems. Notably, it lacks any specific verses that described his behavior outside of the beloved scripture that inspired this post.

Cared about His Men

“He cared deeply for his men”…when they were being starved by the government and Moroni thought he could berate them using that example. When Moroni complained to the government it was in response to losing a key city,the leaders thoughtless state, and how the soldiers suffering was a result of their wickedness. Moroni wrote more about his sacred duty to defend his country than soldiers, and suffering of the latter was more of an exhibit condemning the politicians than a plea for their relief. Again, there were no specific mentions of how he suffered (though he did say he suffered Alma 60:3). Spencer says Moroni shared their depredations but can’t point to a specific verse. Despite Alma 60:3 which again sounds more rhetorical than real, there is no indication in the text that Moroni slept in the same tent as his soldiers, ate his food last, or let his men drink first. Unless otherwise mentioned, it is strongly likely Moroni had the best accommodations and food and awe struck readers are filling in the blanks when there is evidence to suggest otherwise.

The general sharing the suffering of the soldiers is so rare but beneficial for morale that it is included in classical Chinese texts. The Wei Liaozi states:[3]

Now when the army is toiling on the march, the general must establish himself [as an example.] In the heat he does not set up an umbrella;in the cold he does not wear heavier clothes. On difficult terrain he must dismount and walk. Only after the army’s well is finished does he drink. Only after the army’s food is cooked does he eat. Only after the army’s ramparts are complete does he rest. He must personally experience the same toil and respite.In this fashion even though the army is in the field for a long time, it will be neither old nor exhausted.

Chinese generals who did this, such as Wuzi/Wu Chi, were noted in historical texts:[4]
In his position as general, Wu Chi’s custom was to wear the same clothes and eat the same food as the mend in the lowest ranks. When sleeping he did not set out a mat, while on the march he did not ride a horse or in a chariot. He personally packed up his leftover rations, and shared all labors and misery with the troops.

Once when one of his soldiers had a blister, he personally sucked out the puss for him. The soldier’s mother heard about it and wept. Someone said to her: Your son is only an ordinary soldier, while the general himself sucked out the pus. What is there to week about? The mother retorted: That isn’t it. In years past Duke Wu sucked his father’s blister. His father went to war without hesitation and subsequently died at the hands of the enemy. Now Duke Wu again sucks my son’s blister, so I don’t know where he will die. For this reason I weep.
The Book of Mormon doesn’t contain the same detail about Moroni. The text can’t include everything, but Moroni is the central figure of the densest sections of the text. There is some evidence that he did night time scouting on his own (Alma 62:20). He allowed the women servant who was beaten by Morianton to enter his camp (Alma 50:31). Yet there is little indication that he voluntary served watch while the sentries were established, ate last,donated his tent to his soldiers, and similar lore that would have developed around him if he truly shared their suffering.

The Mission and Men Above All

The final point from Spencer was that Moroni put “mission and men above himself.” Like the emphasis on preparing for war a breakdown of this phrase has awful connotations for soldiers. There is always a trade off between driving soldiers and taking care of them, but taken to the extreme,caring about the mission above all else means the army might waste away from over exertion. In fact, proper marching without exhausting the army is vital component of victory. As Wuzi (the same one that reportedly sucked the puss out of his soldier’s foot) wrote:[5]

In general the Way to command an army on the march is to not contravene the proper measures of advancing and stopping; not miss the appropriate times for eating and drinking; and not completely exhaust the strength of the men and the horses…If advancing and resting are not measured;if drinking and eating are not timely and appropriate; and if, when the horses are tired and the men weary, they are not allowed to relax in the encampment,then they will be unable to put the commander’s orders into effect. When the commander’s orders are thus disobeyed, when encamped they will be in turmoil,and in battle they will be defeated.

The text presents mixed evidence that Moroni and Nephite leaders in general truly guarded against over working his men in support of the mission. In Alma 52:28-31, the text emphasizes the advantage gained from Moroni’s men being fresh compared to the Lamanites. But Alma 56:50-51 describes a negative Nephite performance and repeats the word weariness twice in consecutive verses. And the operations in Alma 51 produced “much fatigue (v.33).” That mixed evidence combined with the point that he likely over worked his men in non-combat functions suggests that he did not suffer with his men, and put his God appointed mission above his soldiers to the detriment of the latter.


In short, Moroni is praised in the text using rather stark terms as righteous, powerful, and beloved. But taking away the blinders from that hagiography with a closer and critical look suggests there are negative implications in that praise. He was powerful, but he could use anger to try and solve problems that were better served with patience and tact. He worked hard at preparing his people in defense of their families, but gave such a blizzard of commands that soldiers likely had little time to enjoy their families. He left a strategic legacy that did not lead to a golden age of peace, but ill served the Nephites.[6] He led from the front, like every military leader in this age. He protested the mistreatment of his men, at the same time that it served his political and military interests. He says that he suffered with his men, but the text doesn’t any specific examples. He protected his religion, with armed men storming a public space. He was sternly religious at the sharp point of hiss word, and he put his men and mission above himself to the point that he likely worked the latter group into the ground. Given the evidence from the text compared to a single verse from a far removed editor, I don’t think he was beloved.

A critical assessment of the text finds that Mormon the theologian, and possibly the limitations of sources which didn’t include the average soldier’s experience and feelings, overrode the accuracy of the text in describing him as loved. This is controversial, but it’s no less supported by a careful reading of the scriptures. Thanks for reading. I work as a freelance writer. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below so you can get more of it!! 

[1]“A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation? Part Two” Duane Boyce, Interpreter:A Journal of Mormon Scripture 26 (2017): 49-92.

[2]David Spencer, Captain Moroni’s Command:Dynamics of Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Cedar Fort Press, 2015,) 25-27.

[3] Wei Liao-Tzu, Ralph Sawyer Translated, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Westview Press, 1993,) 249.

[4]Sawyer, Seven Military Classics, 193-194.

[5] Ibid., 215.

[6] I discuss this legacy in great detail in From Saints to Sinners: Reassessing the Book of Mormon.