Monday, September 16, 2019

Myth and Miracles in History of the Franks and the Book of Mormon

As part of a continuing series of reading ancient histories and then showing their insights into the Book of Mormon, I’ve read History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours. Unlike other entries this one is a bit focused as most of the pertinent insights come from a portion of the text being in the same genre as the Book of Mormon. I call this genre mythic history. This doesn’t mean the Book of Mormon is a fairy tale fiction, but that in the same way that Americans talk about how God has blessed and intervened in the history of this country, or church members focus on selective events like the seagulls to show how God intervenes in their history, the Book of Mormon and History of the Franks show the same time of events and intervention.  

I focused on book II because it recounted the history of the Franks before Gregory’s personal lifetime, so it helps to make the comparisons to the Book of Mormon even stronger. Like Mormon, Gregory was recounting events, and trying to show their spiritual importance from a time outside of his personal knowledge. What follows are a series of historical vignettes that Gregory uses to illustrate principles we also find in the Book of Mormon.

ii.30 Clovis the king of the Franks had a wife that was Christian, “But he could not be influenced in any way to this belief, until at last a war arose with the Alamanni, in which he was driven by necessity to confess what before he had of his free will denied.” This of course recalls Alma’s speech where he discussed the difference between choosing and being compelled to be humble (Alma 32:15-16). Gregory noticed this principles when he remarked that external motivations like war finally brought the change that gentle persuasion from his wife couldn’t.

ii.33 Again recalling the mission of Alma to the Zoramites, a city during this war was beset with famine and thus cast out their lower classes. Instead of finding God, they were led by one of the artisans who knew about the aqueducts into the city and the leaders promptly faced execution and exile. 

ii.37 [Part One] After Clovis converted he gained a powerful justification for war against a heretical sect: “I take it very hard that these Arians hold part of the Gauls. Let us go with God's help and conquer them and bring the land under our control.” 

This strongly recalls my analysis of the Lamanite conversion and conversions to Christianity. In a post not too long ago I described the advantages a country historically gained by converting. They gain various tools of statecraft, increased trade, and increased diplomatic and military advantages by being part of the Christian club of nations. The Lamanites in Helaman 6 show many of these traits.

Particularly noteworthy was the Lamanite campaign against the Gadianton Robbers.  When the Lamanites are not part of the club they were described as a wild, ferocious, and bloodthirsty people (Mosiah 10:11-12). This narrative is consistent throughout the Book of Mormon.  Except after their conversion Mormon actually praised them for using “every means” to “destroy” the Gadianton Robbers (Helaman 6:20). A part of this was preaching, but the other part was “hunting” (Helaman 6:37) which likely included the search and destroy missions that the Nephites found so difficult (Helaman 11:28).

ii.37 [Part Two] During his suddenly justified war against the Arians in Gaul he faced a particularly difficult point. “When [Clovis] came to the river Vienne with his army, he did not know where he ought to cross. For the river had swollen from the rains. When he had prayed to the Lord in the night to show him a ford where he could cross, in the morning by God's will a hind of wonderful size entered the river before them, and when it passed over the people saw where they could cross.”

The exact opposite of this occurred during early church history and I remember watching the video about it. Zion’s Camp marched towards Missouri and a delegation from a large posse rode up to them and promised that their much larger group was riding towards Zions Camp to kill them.(Check out the video, the acting is hilarious.) Instead the camp bivouacked in a church while a sudden storm swelled the river and protected them. In the video, its very dramatic with the actor portraying Joseph Smith making a prophetic pronouncement, storm clouds coming out of nowhere, and the saints singing and praising God interspersed with scenes of the posse being destroyed by the storm.

You can see for yourself starting at the 10-minute mark here:

I’m not an expert on religion and don’t have any fancy terms to describe it, but it’s obvious these kinds of stories were important in building a sense of community, a shared history of miracles, and important for the faithful to see God’s hand in their lives. I often say that the fundamentals of human nature remain the same regardless of time period or culture, and I see Gregory of Tours writing a history that included an event very similar to Zion’s Camp.

ii.27 [Part Three] The Abbot Maxentius is recorded as: hasten[ing] boldly to meet the enemy to ask for peace. And one of them drew out his sword to launch a stroke at his head, and when he had raised his hand to his ear it became rigid and the sword fell. And he threw himself at the feet of the blessed man, asking pardon.

This resembles the Book of Mormon in two ways. First, it recalls how the People of Limhi used “their fair daughters” to go and plead before the invading Lamanites (Mosiah 19:13). More important is the failed strike from the leader of the soldier. This recalls the story of the Ammon, the king and his wife who all passed out. One of the Lamanites lost a relative to Ammon and tried to strike him with his sword, at which point he was stricken dead (Alma 19:22). And this became part of the miraculous conversion of so many of them (Alma 19:35). 

Again, historians might doubt these stories as the translator of my edition of Gregory’s history did. The stories about divine intervention in the History of the Franks is a remarkable text that helps us gain insight into important building blocks of faith, a foundation of the church, and a shared history among their people. I find it remarkable that the Book of Mormon contains the same kind of miracles.

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