Friday, June 26, 2020

Approaching Nephite Thought on Warfare

Military history is more than battles. The extensive war campaigns and drama surrounding those battles tend to promote a great deal of writing them. But warfare is also how societies conceptualize warfare, and leaders justify it. I was doing the Come Follow Me readings and found very interesting verses at the end of Jacob. I have already discussed Jacob’s futile victory before, but I think these two short verses in Jacob set a template for how later Nephite leaders justified warfare.

Jacob 7:24-25-

And it came to pass that many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually. 
Wherefore, the people of Nephi did fortify against them with their arms, and with all their might, trusting in the God and rock of their salvation; wherefore they became as yet, conquerors of their enemies.
Verse 24 starts with a discussion of Nephite “means” to “reclaim and restore” the Lamanites. These are interesting verb choices that most likely reflect the difference between Aaron and Ammon’s missionary service. Compare Alma 17 where Ammon becomes a servant of the king, sets a good example, and then preaches; with Aaron’s attempt to preach in the synagogues of Jerusalem in chapter 21. It might also refer to activities like the prayer of Enos for the sake of his brethren. 

But those are futile because of the “eternal” hatred of the Lamanites. They rejected the preaching of the Nephites in favor of exercising their hatred through warfare. The “power of arms” at the end of the verse contrasts with the “knowledge of the truth” that the Nephites missionaries believed would reclaim and restore the Lamanites. (The apostle Paul also compared the spirit and word of God to a sword. Ephesians 6:17.)  The Lamanites then rejected the gospel, turned to hatred, and took literal swords instead of the figurative sword of truth.

The Nephites, after failing to convert the Lamanites, and being the subjects of eternal hatred then fortified against them.  This sounds purely defensive, but the fortifications refer to arms and not walls, and it led them to be conquerors so I wouldn’t read that quite so literally.  What is interesting, is that even though they resorted to arms, the proper place of warfare was to remind them to trust in God. 

Finally, the couple ends with, “wherefore, they became as yet, conquerors.”  The tentative declaration of that sentence is very poignant to me. Its not a final victory. After all, fighting only occurs because the preaching of the truth failed. The Nephites only succeeded in defending themselves by trusting in God. The victories thus hardly seem like it because a true victory would mean they never had to fight in the first place.  

These verses seem to have influenced later Nephite writers. Alma gave up political power to devote his full time and energy to preaching. His reasoning corresponds to the first part of Jacob’s couplet and the primacy of spiritual power over political power. 

Alma 4:19-

These verses from Jacob seem to have influenced later Nephite writers. Alma gave up political power to devote his full time and energy to preaching. His reasoning corresponds to the first part of Jacob’s couplet and the primacy of spiritual power over political power. 

This he did that he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.
Its interesting to note that those who rejected his spiritual teachings at Ammonihah nominally recognized Alma’s former political power, but it was the rejection of his spiritual teachings and the great wickedness of the city that got them killed (Alma 8:12; 16:2). Pahoran clearly echoes this thinking in response to Moroni. 

Alma 61:14:

Let us resist evil, and whatsoever evil we cannot resist with our words, yeah, such as rebellions and dissensions, let us resist them with our swords, that we may retain our freedom, that we may rejoice in the great privilege of our church, and in the cause of our Redeemer and our God. 
Again, spiritual teachings come first, and the resort to weapons comes second. In this case it’s interesting to note that he is referring to subduing internal rebellions while Jacob was referring to external invasion. Still though, the use of those weapons only occurs after the failure of preaching and must be connected back to God.

In Jacob’s time it simply refers to God and his salvation. But here the use of weapons here points towards their freedom to worship God and protect their church. Not every Nephite belonged to the church of God, so this could have been a more divisive point than modern readers understand. Those that didn’t belong to the church of God were subject to Nephite rulers, again, think of the people of Ammonihah.  In the case of the chief judge Nephihah, he was chosen from only among the elders of the church (Alma 4:19), but they still had to fight for that church’s right to worship at the threat of Moroni’s sword (Alma 51:17).  

Helaman 6:3, 37-

The final case is the most revealing as it shows how the Lamanites either incorporated Nephite thought, or Mormon crafted his narrative in such a way that the Lamanites conformed to it. After the Lamanites were converted in Helaman chapter 5 in chapter 6 they are recorded as being more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:2-3). These righteous Lamanites used “every means” to destroy the Gadianton Robbers. These sounds like an aberration because preaching is supposed to come first according to Jacob. But verse 37 says that the Lamanites “did hunt the band of robbers; and they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them.” The printer’s manuscript may have meant the “less wicked” parts of the robbers, or more wicked parts of the Lamanites who, as Ammon and Aaron found out, would still be more receptive to the gospel than apostate Nephites. But the important part is that the Lamanites preached to those that would listen, and fought those that didn’t.  


Jacob’s short verses were an incredibly powerful statement about the importance of spiritual teachings, it’s relation to warfare, and warfare’s ideal purpose leading to trust in God. Adhering to spiritual teaching was supposed to lead to peace, but the rejection of it often led to war. Warfare required warfare to combat it. Not pacifism as many modern readers mistakenly believe. But that warfare was supposed to be done with a trust in God, and it was supposed to lead to greater reliance on God as the ultimate guarantee of victory, and not the strength of arms as a temporary victory.  

It was so important I believe it influenced Nephite leaders and was possibly transmitted to Lamanite coverts or through the entirety of Nephite history down to its great (second to) last record keeper, Mormon. 

1 comment:

Jeffrey A. Faulkner said...

I like your post. I hope it helps the saints understand their role in the coming civil war and world war.