Monday, February 18, 2019
Approaching Immigration in the of Book of Mormon
There was a recent debate in the comments section of the Desert News that I think deserves an entire follow up. The article in question was about the importance of building the wall from an expert, Tim Ballard, fighting child sex trafficking. The comments section included a long debate about the efficacy of walls in the Book of Mormon. But they failed to note significant points that alter the debate and provide a better understanding. The key point is that the walls were part of Nephite military strategy, not immigration strategy, and people see what they want to see in the scriptures without understanding immigration in the book.
It is tough to determine if any ancient power, or a people described in the Book of Mormon even had a coherent policy. Edward Luttwak’s description of Roman Grand Strategy often falters as critiques point out that there was little chance that rulers had little more than an ad hoc reactions to many frontier incursions, and not a strategy planned and implemented over decades and centuries.
But we might still look carefully for how the Nephite rulers and ancient version of policy makers controlled the movement of people. We find that the Nephites did little in most cases to forcibly control the movement of people. In several cases, and moving chronologically through the text, the moving groups received permission from the ruler.
The People of Limhi received permission from the Lamanite King, though they were, to use modern language, eventually exploited for up to half of their goods (Mosiah 9:5-7). The escaping Anti Nephi Lehis received permission to enter Nephite lands. They even offered to be slaves to the Nephites, but instead were granted land (Alma 27:8-9). Later in their history, they provided both men and food to support the Nephite war against the Lamanites which suggests a possible tributary relationship with the Nephites where they give food and soldiers for protection and land. (In fact, settling refugees in military colonies who then supported the mustered soldiers was a strategy advocated by Chinese legalists like Lord Shang and Han Feizi.)
The Nephites under Moroni did adopt an immigrant program, but it is hardly something most modern readers would approve. In Alma chapter 50 He took the soldiers and forcibly removed Lamanite settlers and seized the lands in the East and West wilderness. I doubt he gave them 30 day notices, and a flood of refugees entering other Lamanite lands likely helped galvanize opposition to what Lamanite leaders could easily portray as aggressive Nephite expansion. Moroni also used the army to prevent the movement of Morianton under the guise of national security (Alma 50:32).
In the Book of Helaman the events are often described in brief, but there are even more movements of people, and less control by the government. The rise of the infamous Gadianton Robbers was connected to a failure of government officials to effectively enforce its laws, and an inability of the government to control the movement of their people and maintain territorial integrity. The autonomy of local officials increased. The chaos created new frontiers and borderlands, and new leaders rose to fill that gap. In addition to Helaman chapter one, the Nephites faced other losses of territory. As a result of contention, many settlers left for the far north (Helaman 3:3). This pattern was repeated by separatists that later toppled the Nephite government (3 Nephi 7:12). Shortly thereafter, the Nephites lost all of their territory to the Lamanites, with only a part of it being recovered (Helaman 4:10). Nephi was forced out of his position as chief judge (Helaman 5:1-3). Their territory was only recovered through miraculous means (Helaman 5:52) that I think was the result of governing Lamanites converting in order to gain advantages (such as a just war against the Gadianton Robbers, Helaman 6:20) similar to the conversion pattern seen throughout European history (Helaman 6:3, 8-9).Later armies explicitly “took possession” of the land suggesting more armed control over men and material (Mormon 2:4; 4:2).
This is a cursory examination of the scriptures involving movement of people. It doesn’t involve ideologies and needs much more study. We can see that walls had some effect in security Nephite cities. But these were explicitly military and the immigration policy was far more extemporaneous in response to current events and the relative power of the ruling elites at the time. Early in Nephite history the migrating groups asked for permission to enter lands they entered. But both Nephites and Lamanites extracted compensation from it. Under powerful leaders such as Captain Moroni, they violently seized land and actually created refugees. This seems to go unnoticed by many American conservatives, and confirms that most people see what they want to see. Finally, throughout much of the Book of Helaman people and groups move without any hints of government intervention.
The conclusion I draw is that most people see what they want to see regarding immigration. They see the word wall and naturally want to argue that walls work. Or they read the book with their woke goggles and bemoan the militaristic stud muffins like Moroni. But in reality, the ancient Nephites didn’t have an organized immigration system like modern nation states, in many cases they didn’t actively oppose it, and they did many things with which modern readers would find morally disagreeable. The Book of Mormon has limited value in immigration debates and is not a handbook on that debate, except in reminding us that we are all part of God’s family.
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 Peter Heather, “Holding the Line: Frontier Defense and the Later roman Empire, in Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Princeton University Press, 2009, 228.
 The Book of Lord Shang, JJL Duyvendak trans., University of Chicago Press, 1928, 50.